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Marriage in Turnaround 

A screenwriting couple in Showtime’s Out of Order. Plus, fatal attraction in Soldier’s Girl

Thursday, May 29 2003
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Tall, handsome, loving, faithful and successful, Hollywood screenwriter Mark Colm (Eric Stoltz) is close to being the perfect husband. So perfect, in fact, that he should probably be wearing a skirt. He shops and cooks, feeds the pets, ferries his son to and from school, and generally does all the bill-paying and worrying and work while his wife and erstwhile writing partner, Lorna (Felicity Huffman), lies in bed till noon, having spent another rough night battling depression with the aid of pot, gin, sleeping pills and a couple of rounds of meditation. “Everybody would be better off if I wasn’t here,” she tells Mark in despair. “It’s not really you talking,” Mark replies soothingly. “You have an illness.”

Well, don’t we all. Hell, even Mark has one — an excessive desire to nag. “I thought it was just women who were always on the rag,” sneers Lorna’s drinking partner, Steven (William H. Macy), when Mark gently reminds his wife, not for the first time, that they need to go home and take care of their son. Later, Mark punches Steven in the nose. That’s more like it.

Out of Order, a new series on Showtime (Sunday, June 1, 10 p.m.), is the brainchild of the husband-and-wife team Donna and Wayne Powers (Deep Blue Sea), and the 90-minute pilot that sets the story in motion boasts an unfakable familiarity with the dynamics of a long-term Hollywood marriage. Stylistically, the program feels gently hallucinatory, which is appropriate since it all comes out of Mark’s pale, gentlemanly head. “I am about to place my fate in you, my jury,” he says in a voice-over at the start of the pilot. “Yes, you, out there with your remote control, gathered in front of the modern-day fire. You see, since I was a kid, I imagined my life as a movie. So it’s only appropriate that you, my audience, will decide if I am guilty or not . . .”

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Unless I missed something, the only sins Mark is guilty of are looking at women, looking at women, looking at women and, finally, sleeping with a woman, the first time he’s committed adultery in 17 years. (Orgasmic groans and sighs inform us it was worth the wait.) The woman in question is Danni (Kim Dickens), pert soccer mom to Mark’s smart soccer dad, and they meet while cheering on their kids at a weekly kick-around on the sunny greensward of West L.A. Danni’s spouse does occasionally accompany her to these outings, but Mark’s never does. Over the course of a semester there’s plenty of time to get acquainted.

On paper, the show may sound a bit like HBO’s critical flop The Mind of the Married Man, which was also about the eternal temptation to play around. But whereas the latter show was set in Chicago, and had a certain gritty refusal to paper over the retrograde realities of the male libido, Out of Order is awash in a suburban-pastoral glow that bathes everything, dirty sex-thoughts included, in an ethereal light. One of the best scenes comes after Mark has been told, during a script conference with Peter Bogdanovich (played by himself), to rewrite a scene with the characters in it taking Ecstasy rather than smoking pot. Diligent writer that he is, he decides (with Lorna’s blessing) to invite some friends over for an Ecstasy party so he can investigate the drug’s properties more closely. What follows is a contemporary urban bacchanal that progresses from house to hot tub to swimming pool, where, after everyone else has left, Mark and Danni initiate (but don’t consummate) their long-awaited adultery while twisting and turning prettily underwater. There’s none of the raunchiness here of the swimming-pool scenes in Laurel Canyon, which also featured a lot of poolside smooching. It’s as if spirits were having sex rather than humans.

If the pilot is mostly about Mark, there’s still plenty of room for Lorna, who (speaking of Laurel Canyon) has a slightly Frances McDormand–ish, rough-around-the-edges middle-aged sexiness. Her scenes with William Macy, in which the two of them booze it up merrily to Mark’s dismay, provide some of the best moments, as scenes with Macy so often do. Her depression, though, seems largely to be a misnomer for sobriety, and when the roots of her gloom (molestation, horrible in-laws, etc.) are explored in crude fashion, you start to feel pretty gloomy yourself. All this happens in the first half-hour, but don’t let that put you off. If the four remaining episodes are as good as the first, Out of Order may be around for as long as a good, solid contemporary marriage — three years at the very least.

 

From a man who could be wearing a skirt to a guy who’s in full makeup and a dress: Soldier’s Girl, also on Showtime (Saturday, May 31, 9 p.m.), is based on the true case of Barry Winchell, a private in the Airborne Infantry at Fort Campbell who fell in love with Calpernia Addams, a transgendered nightclub performer, and was murdered by a fellow infantryman as a result.

It’s a grim tale, and though I presume director Frank Pierson and writer Ron Nyswaner adhere to the basic facts, the emotional intangibles that give a narrative heft don’t ring true. Good as TV movies go, Soldier’s Girl nonetheless is a little underimagined. As Winchell, a man who’s not really straight but not really gay either, Troy Garity convincingly portrays a soldier who doesn’t quite fit in. His roommate, Justin Fisher (Shawn Hatosy), can smell the solitude on him a mile off.

Ironically, then, it’s Fisher — an overemotional, Ritalin-gobbling head case with some underlying sexual confusion of his own — who takes Winchell and several other infantrymen to Visions, a glam nightclub where the women turn out to be men and the k.d. lang and Annie Lennox records are always spinning. Egged on by Fisher, who’s already taunting him for being gay, Winchell goes backstage to “investigate” the biological status of the willowy redhead, Calpernia, who has just regaled the unit with a lip-synched performance of “Fever,” and finds himself unexpectedly drawn to her. The romance that results is the movie’s biggest disappointment: Lee Pace is touching as Calpernia, but the filmmakers fail to flesh out his relationship with Winchell. Their union is a coming together of two misfits, but the cinematic poetry needed to convey their oddball view of the universe is missing in action.

If gender is a learned behavior, as certain academics teach us, then perhaps what attracts Winchell to Calpernia is that she has learned the lessons rather well. Or maybe not, since much of what academics teach us seems to be complete rubbish. At any rate, when he sees Fisher again outside the nightclub, Winchell tells him that Calpernia is indeed female. He means her essence is womanly — more so, perhaps, than that of many actual women. (The few women we see in the film are either soldiers themselves or raunchy party girls.) If corporate society teaches women to look feminine and think masculine, it may be that the transgendered try to think like women as well as appear and act like them. For Winchell, Calpernia’s highly stylized femininity is a refuge from the aggressively masculine world of the Army, at least in part because of its artificiality. And why not? It’s the reason generations of Japanese businessmen have visited geishas, after all.

Try explaining all that to a meathead like Fisher and a commanding officer eager to snuff out the merest hint of unorthodox sexuality in his unit. Even if we didn’t know the story, Winchell’s demise would feel inevitable. But that doesn’t prepare one for the appalling brutality of his death.

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