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Pickled Drama

[whitespace] Polish Wedding
Oh Baby: Hala (Claire Danes) ponders her unplanned pregnancy.

Breeding counts in 'Polish Wedding'--the more babies the better

By Richard von Busack

IN THESE artistically competitive times, the filmmaker's task is to dig out the last remaining pockets of ethnicity in America and expose them to the lens. Hamtramck, the Polish-American enclave in Detroit, consists of row houses surrounding a Catholic church about as big as Notre Dame. A small main street sports ethnic delis and bakeries--and no sign of a Safeway anywhere. Although I don't believe the premise of the new film Polish Wedding for a New York minute, I love the neighborhood. But the story is alternately mawkish and hard to swallow. Sold as a Polish Moonstruck, it delivers the unlikely tale of a girl's smooth handling of an unplanned pregnancy--mostly thanks to her mother, who is full of Hollywood peasant aphorisms about her desire to fill this world with life. (If they'd just filled the movie with life, I'd have been satisfied.)

It's been a strange week at the movies. Drew Barrymore plays a nice girl in Ever After, while Claire Danes picks up the slack in Polish Wedding by portraying Hala, a Barrymore-style wild teenager, unruly of hair and hot of pants. After dropping out of school, Hala is spending her summer being chased by men. In this vocation, she's just like her mother, Jadzia (Lena Olin), who, even after eight children (five of whom lived), is still impressive in a red dress. Jadzia's hangdog husband, Bolek (Gabriel Byrne), works nights, the better to give Jadzia some room to see her boyfriend. Friction between the mom and the daughter--who worships her dad--marks Hala's life only slightly. An unplanned pregnancy actually ends up bringing the already crowded family closer.

Some will consider Olin's Transylvanian-accented Jadzia a bizarre character, with her cryptic old-country sayings, her ghoulish consumption of Polish dill pickles and her habit of pestering her semiemployed children to produce more babies. Some will even comment rudely about the fact that Jadzia works as a cleaning woman, baby-sits her infant grandchild and still dresses like a woman with a $1,000-a-month clothes budget. Such gripers are handled by Jadzia, who says, "My religion is making life--making life and making love." As Martha put it in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, she is the earth mother, and you are all flops. Olin is still a looker, as profoundly sexy as she was 10 years ago in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The way writer/director Theresa Connelly has presented her, however, Jadzia is impossible to believe--too much monument and not enough monster.

The women--daughter and mother--are supernaturally gifted, all knowing; Danes' Hala has some sort of almost vampiristic powers over men and makes them do her bidding. In the end, the men are all the better for having submitted, for having had to get married because of a pregnancy. It's profoundly depressing to see this kind of story make a comeback; no doubt, we'll be getting some films about the benefits of arranged marriages soon. The audience is desperate for visions of community, tempting-looking fixer-upper real estate, close families and a World Without Wal-Mart, but Connelly's overstated the case to the point of fantasy. The odd flavor of Polish Wedding ruins it. It's less a slice of life than a slice of liver.

Polish Wedding (PG-13; 101 min.), directed and written by Theresa Connelly, photographed by Guy Dufaus and starring Claire Danes, Lena Olin and Gabriel Byrne.

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From the August 6-13, 1998 issue of Metro.

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