It must have been a marvelous moment in media history. The uneasy year was 1944 and the story came (of course) from California. One Ellsworth “Sonny” Wisecarver eloped with an older woman, which is not unusual in itself until you realize that the woman was a married mother and Sonny was only 15. Then, a few months later, the little dickens did it again—with a different married woman.
Sonny had his moment of glory, and his legendary wooing technique even earned him the nickname “The Woo Woo Kid.” This technique, unfortunately, also landed him in juvenile halls, for breaking certain archaic laws. Then he slipped into a (probably welcome) anonymity.
But In the Mood, which recounts these tumultuous months in the life of Sonny Wisecarver, returns this unique American character to his rightful place of prominence. It’s an ingratiating movie, not quite as good as it might have been, perhaps, but with plenty to like.
Sonny (Patrick Dempsey, late of Can’t Buy Me Love) is portrayed here as a normal guy who simply wears his heart on his sleeve. Who can blame him for thinking that running off to Yuma, Ariz., is more fun that the ninth grade? Or for gravely noting to himself, after spending a few hours with his first amour, that “Women are good”?
His first conquest, the young mother (Talia Balsam, a wonderful performance), is a sweet and quiet girl, and quite swept away by Sonny’s romantic way of expressing himself. His second elopement is with a brassier, more experienced woman (Beverly D’Angelo), but she’s no less impressed by Sonny’s heartfelt honesty.
The writer-director is Phil Alden Robinson, who wrote the fine script to All of Me. This is his first directed feature, and he doesn’t really have all the moves yet—there are missed opportunities, I think, and some uncertainties in tone. The movie never sings in the way that you imagine it would if, say, Jonathan Demme had directed it.
But Robinson finds many charming things in the course of Sonny’s wacky journey, such as the nurses who tend the newly famous Sonny when he lands in the hospital, and who give him curiously frequent sponge baths; or the shot of Sonny and a lady conversing through an apartment wall, while the camera pulls back to reveal the romantic night that surrounds them.
Then there’s a rundown diner where Sonny and his paramour have dinner; he gets carried away enough to ask the slatternly waitress, “What kind of champagne do you have?” (to which she responds, without missing a beat, “Schlitz”).
The film’s probably too low-key whimsical to be very popular, but at least it restores the glory of the Woo Woo Kid (the real Sonny Wisecarver pops up in a cameo role in a mock newsreel sequence). And you can’t argue with a film that openly endorses Sonny’s unfettered philosophy: “Sensible is boring.”
First published in the Herald, October 1, 1987
Another from the early career of Patrick Dempsey, new owner of Tully’s. Curiously, or not, just before the movie came out Dempsey, age 21, married a 48-year-old. Which is not really like the movie’s plot, but there you go. I am glad to have lauded the work of Talia Balsam, that excellent actress who should be more lauded in general (what a family life she has—married to her Mad Men co-star John Slattery, ex-married to George Clooney, daughter of Martin Balsam and Joyce Van Patten). I hadn’t remembered liking this movie this much. Robinson’s next was, of course, Field of Dreams.