She-Devil (1989) Directed by Susan Seidelman; screenplay by Barry Strugatz & Mark R. Burns; produced by Jonathan Brett & Susan Seidelman.
Boy, this movie came along at exactly the wrong time in my life. 1989 was the summer I turned 13; my parents' divorce had just become final that June, and if there was one thing I was not in the mood to see--nor really mature enough to get--it was a black comedy about divorce and revenge.
The movie stars Roseanne Barr in her film debut. She plays Ruth, a frumpy, put-upon housewife whose husband (Ed Begley, Jr., perfectly fitting the tone) cheats on her constantly. When he meets a glamorous romance novelist (Meryl Streep) at a party, he falls hard for her and begins having an affair. He approaches the affair in a cavalier manner, barely bothering to hide it, offering lame excuses until he finally just leaves his family behind. And at that moment, Ruth's precarious life--the constant balancing act of trying to keep her husband happy even as he constantly disrespects her--comes toppling down. The first thing she does is make a list of all the things her husband values: his home, his family, his career, and his freedom. Then she blows up the house, drops the kids of at the mistresses' home, and sets about dismantling his career and his freedom.
She makes a series of really brilliant plays, but what's really satisfying about the movie is that, along the way, Ruth makes a lifelong friend and gains self-esteem, confidence, financial success, and a real measure of control over her life that was missing before. That's the best part of this movie: as her quest for revenge unfolds, she becomes empowered and fully realized. It's a terrific bit of satire, because it strikes at this idea that feminism is somehow dangerous to men.
Roseanne is quite good in the movie. When it came out in December of 1989, Roseanne was in its second season. You expect stand-up comics/sitcom actors who go into a movie to play it a little too broad, to really ham it up, but despite the movie having moments that are pitched on a cartoony level for impact, she really underplays the role, making her transition from doormat to actualized businesswoman believable. Meryl Streep, as Mary Fisher, is able to bring a depth to her role, too, by playing Mary as desperate and buffoonish, believing her own PR BS. Ed Begley, Jr. is hilarious, and Linda Hunt is likable as Ruth's friend, who breaks out of her own rut. I love Linda Hunt. I never see Linda Hunt anymore.
The entire film's not a slam dunk, but a lot of it works. It's directed by Susan Seidelman, who had previously made a movie I love, Making Mr. Right. Reading the synopsis of the original Fay Weldon novel the movie is based on, I think it was right to make this more of a satire. That novels sounds dark.
So while I don't feel it's necessarily a lost gem, I didn't feel like I wasted my time. What alienated me at 13, a child of a recent divorce, made me guffaw as a somewhat cynical adult.