December 5, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Julia Hart
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Northeastern city in the U.S. in the 1970s, the dramatic film “I’m Your Woman” has a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans) representing the middle-class and the criminal underworld.
Culture Clash: After a woman’s criminal husband goes missing and she’s told that her life is in danger, she is forced to go on the run with their adopted baby son.
Culture Audience: “I’m Your Woman” will appeal primarily to people who like slow-burn crime dramas that are predictable but have good acting.
People who are used to seeing Rachel Brosnahan as the fast-talking and witty stand-up comedian in her Emmy-winning Amazon Prime Video series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” are in for a big surprise when they see Brosnahan in the moody and often slow-paced dramatic film “I’m Your Woman,” also from Amazon Studios. Brosnahan stars in both vehicles, but these two projects—and the characters she portrays in each—are very different from each other.
The brightly colored, upper-middle-class 1960s world inhabited by Brosnahan’s sassy Midge Maisel character in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is in stark contrast to the shadowy and gritty 1970s world of Brosnahan’s terrified Jean character in “I’m Your Woman,” who has to quickly adjust to life as a fugitive from gangsters. It’s a transformation that’s a testament to Brosnahan’s enormous talent, even if “I’m Your Woman” is not as well-written and as compelling as “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
“I’m Your Woman” (directed by Julia Hart, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jordan Horowitz) is set in an unnamed Northeastern region of the U.S. in a time period that takes place in the late 1970s. (The movie was actually filmed in Pittsburgh.) In the beginning of the film, Jean seems to be living an easy, pampered life as a suburban housewife. She’s seen lounging in her backyard in a magenta maribou robe, while smoking a cigarette with a glass of wine nearby.
Jean deadpans in a voiceover that sums up her marital life up to that point: “Eddie and Jean met and fell in love. Eddie and Jean got married and bought a house. Eddie and Jean were going to have a kid, but didn’t. So, every morning, Eddie kisses Jean, Eddie leaves the house, and Jean’s alone.”
As a housewife with no children, all Jean has to do is keep the house clean and cook for Eddie. And one of those things she doesn’t do very well. There’s a semi-joke during the movie about how Jean, by her own admission, is a terrible cook. For example, she can’t even make toast without burning it.
Her husband Eddie (played by Bill Heck) is understanding about Jean’s lack of cooking skills. But is this a picture-perfect marriage? Of course not. The first sign that Eddie is into some shady dealings is when he suddenly comes home one day with a baby boy and hands the child to Jean and tells her that the child is now theirs.
Jean doesn’t ask the type of questions that most people would ask. Instead, she tells Eddie, “Is this some kind of sick joke? Because I’m not in the mood.” Eddie replies, “It’s all worked out. He’s our baby.” He then tells Jean that she can name the baby. She names him Harry.
This is the part of the plot where viewers will have to suspend a lot of disbelief, because it’s explained later why Jean immediately wants to become this child’s mother without asking any crucial questions, such as: How did Eddie get the child? Who are the child’s biological parents? Where is the child’s birth certificate?
It becomes quite clear that Jean is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” wife. She knows her husband is a thief and doesn’t really want to know what else he might be up to doing for “work,” as long as he keeps her happy. But it’s revealed later in the story that the one thing in their marriage that has kept Jean very unhappy is that she’s had several miscarriages. She desperately wants to become a mother and has a lot of emotional scars from being unable to carry a baby to childbirth.
The shock of having an “instant” baby takes a while to wear off because Jean is completely unprepared for all the responsibilities of taking care of a newborn baby. It’s a lot harder than she thought it would be. (The role of Harry is played by three different boys: Jameson Charles, Justin Charles and Barrett Shaffer. The movie has the predictable cute baby expressions edited in certain scenes, to make it look like Harry is reacting to something.)
Jean barely has time to adjust to being a new mother when something happens that also drastically alters her life. Very late one night, Jean is woken up by a thug named Jimmy (played by Jarrod DiGiorgi), one of Eddie’s colleagues, who frantically tells her that she has to pack up some things and leave the house with Harry. A shocked and confused Jean asks Jimmy why.
All he tells her is that something happened, she and Harry have to go into hiding, and that Jean has to go with someone named Cal (who is waiting outside the house), and do whatever Cal says. Jimmy also gives Jean $20,000 in cash. Eddie is nowhere in sight, and Jimmy doesn’t seem to know where Eddie is.
Jean only has a light travel bag and Harry with her when she leaves with Cal (played by Arinzé Kene), whose car is parked outside. Cal is a strong, silent type, who also doesn’t know where Eddie is. It’s at this point it becomes very obvious that Eddie is into illegal things that are more serious than stealing.
However, Jean is in deep denial, and she doesn’t understand until Cal literally tells her why she has to go into hiding. Eddie has killed a powerful gangster, Eddie has been a murderer for quite some time, and now he’s gone missing. The cronies of the murdered gangster are out to get revenge on Eddie and his family. Eddie seemed to know that a day might come when he would get into this type of trouble, so he already arranged for a safe house where Jean could go in case she needed to hide.
And how does Cal know Eddie? He tells Jean that he used to work for Eddie. But as the story goes on, there are major signs that Cal and Eddie had some kind of falling out, because Cal gets very tense whenever Eddie’s name is mentioned. Cal also makes an offhand, somewhat snide comment when he says that Eddie must still have friends if Jean was warned to leave and go to a fully furnished safe house.
The safe house is several miles away and it will take more than a day to get there by car. During their road trip, Cal and Jean stay in a motel for one night and try to keep a low profile. However, Harry (who has been crying a lot) seems to have a fever. Against Cal’s objections, Jean insists that they go to a hospital to get medical help for the baby. Hospitals keep records, and Cal doesn’t want any trace of where he and Jean are.
After Harry gets treatment at the hospital, it doesn’t take long for the baby to recover from his fever, so Jean and Cal abruptly leave with the baby, without formally checking out of the hospital. This health scare leaves them exhausted, so during their road trip, they pull over to the side of a road to take a nap.
They are woken up by a racist police officer, who immediately assumes that Cal is up to no good and that Jean might be a kidnapping victim. The cop won’t let Cal talk during the questioning, and he keeps asking Jean if she’s okay, as if expecting her to tell him that this African American man is holding her against her will.
Jean can see where this line of questioning is going, so she lies and says that Cal is her husband and they were just taking a nap because they were worn out from the health scare that the baby had. Jean makes sure to keep the baby’s face covered, so the cop can’t see that the baby is white. The cop lets them go with a warning, while still glaring suspiciously at Cal. As Cal and Jean drive off, she tells him with a certain amount of pride, “I didn’t know I could lie like that.”
At the safe house, Cal tells Jean that there’s a phone upstairs to call only if there is a real emergency. He also gives her a number to call if an emergency happens. Cal says that he can’t watch her 24 hours a day, and he gives Jean strict orders not to talk to anyone except for him while she’s at the safe house. But, of course, you know in a movie like this, rules will be broken, and something is going to go wrong.
Jean begs Cal not to leave because she says she’s never been on her own before. (Jean’s life before she married Eddie is never revealed in this movie.) Cal is fairly even-tempered, but at this moment, he gets irritated with Jean and snaps at her: “I’m doing the best I can!” Then in a calmer voice, as if he regrets losing his temper, he says to Jean: “Let’s do the best we can.” Why is Cal caught up in Eddie’s mess if Cal no longer works for Eddie? That’s explained later in the movie.
Jean breaks the “no talking to anyone else but Cal” rule one evening when the doorbell rings and she answers it. The visitor is a lonely and slightly nosy neighbor named Evelyn (played by Marceline Hugot), an elderly widow who lives two houses down on the same street. Evelyn introduces herself and makes small talk with Jean, who is very guarded and doesn’t want to talk to Evelyn for very long. Jean also lies and says that her name is Mary, but she tells the truth about her baby being named Harry. Before Evelyn walks away, she gives Jean a bouquet of garden flowers as a housewarming gift.
Evelyn, who says she used to know the people who lived in the house, shows up unannounced again at the front door on another evening. Evelyn has brought some homemade lasagna with her. And since Jean is a terrible cook and is longing for a good meal, she lets Evelyn into the house, where they talk some more over their meal at the dining table.
Jean is still wary about telling Evelyn details about herself, but Jean finds herself having a friendly rapport with this neighbor. Evelyn offers to help Jean with anything that she might need. However, Jean still can’t trust Evelyn completely. Jean’s paranoia becomes evident when Evelyn asks to use the restroom upstairs. Jean hears Evelyn walking around upstairs and has panicky thoughts and calls out Evelyn’s name to make sure that nothing suspicious is going on.
At this point in the story, Jean still thinks that Eddie will eventually show up and that their lives might go back to normal. But Jean is in for a rude awakening, when a series of events happen where she has to “toughen up” in order to survive. During the course of the movie (which takes place over an unspecified period of time but it’s definitely less than two weeks), Jean goes from being a sheltered housewife into a street-smart badass. And this evolution is expected and handled in a mostly predictable way, although Brosnahan adds interesting layers of nuance that make the performance worth watching.
What’s less interesting than Brosnahan’s performance is how the pace of the movie sometimes tends to drag. I’m Your Woman” has a running time of two hours, but it could’ve easily been 90 to 110 minutes if some scenes had better editing. And some elements of Jean’s transformation are just a little too convenient for this story.
For example, Jean is supposed to be a wife in deliberate denial about her husband Eddie’s criminal activities that don’t involve stealing. She seems shocked to find out that he was secretly a serial murderer involved in gang activities. However, there’s a scene in the movie before Eddie disappears where he invites some of his goon colleagues over to the house, and everything about them screams “gangsters.”
And based on Jean’s reaction, she’s seen these guys with her husband before. But during the course of the story, Jean’s naïveté suddenly disappears and she’s able to intuitively figure out big secrets in Eddie’s life (that don’t involve murder), just by having a few conversations with certain people. It’s a drastic change that doesn’t always ring true.
It can certainly be left up to interpretation that Jean had these street smarts all along, and her ordeal of being on the run from gangsters helped bring this uncanny intuition out of her. But it all just looks like too sudden, too “on the nose.” One minute, Jean is panicky and can’t think straight. The next minute, Jean is figuring out Eddie’s web of lives as if she’s logical Miss Marple having a big detective “a-ha” moment.
At any rate, the safe house no longer becomes safe, so Cal takes Jean to his family log cabin for protection. It’s here that Jean meets Cal’s wife Teri (played by Marsha Stephanie Blake); Cal and Teri’s son Paul (played by De’Mauri Parks), who’s about 9 or 10 years old; and Cal’s father (played by Frankie Faison), who ends up teaching Jean how to use a gun.
“I’m Your Woman” takes its time to get to some of the action that people might expect to be happening throughout the movie. Instead, there are only sporadic pockets of real action, such as chase scenes or gun fights. Jean and Teri end up forming an unexpected bond with each other, but there are moments where Jean is left wondering how much she can trust Teri or anyone at all.
As for baby Harry, his origins are never really explained. Jean says that Eddie told her that Harry’s young, unwed mother arranged for Eddie to get the child through a private arrangement, which is implied to be an illegal adoption. (Jean never asks to see paperwork.) But considering that Eddie lied about so many things to Jean, who really knows if that’s true? The child could have been kidnapped, but it’s clear that Jean doesn’t care. As far as Jean is concerned, she is now Harry’s mother.
“I’m Your Woman” shares some things in common with writer/director Hart’s 2019 female superhero movie “Fast Color,” which was another slow-paced film that was focused less on fight scenes and more about the interior transformation of a woman gradually coming to terms with and learning to use the power she didn’t really know she had. Jean is not a superhero, but her maternal instinct kicks in fiercely during the story because she begins to understand the type of parental love that puts children above anything else.
The movie’s portrayal of the 1970s is mostly authentic for its production design and costume design (lots of tones in sepia, olive or mustard), except for one scene where people run out of a nightclub where there was a gun shooting, and the entire street looks like a movie set instead of a real Pittsburgh street from the 1970s. And there are some little details that the movie gets right in showing Jean’s maternal instinct to think about the baby before anything else. In one scene, Jean is barefoot in a grocery store because she frantically ran there to get some baby formula for Harry. It’s explained in the movie why she’s barefoot.
Some scenes are a little corny, such as when Jean and Cal are in a nearly-empty diner together soon after they meet, and they end up singing Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” It’s a great song, but very over-used in movies and TV. Other scenes are emotionally resonant, such as when Jean starts to come out of her shell and connect with Teri and her family. And there is some melodrama, such as when Jean has a tearful breakdown in a laundromat.
The movie doesn’t make any heavy-handed commentaries about race relations, but it does show (not tell) how Jean and Teri—two women from very different backgrounds—can form an alliance organically without any bigotry getting in the way of their friendship. Brosnahan and Blake have an authentic rapport with one another that make their scenes together the movie’s definite high points. And it’s refreshing that this movie didn’t resort to catty clichés of the two women bickering before they found a way to get along with each other.
If people hear that “I’m Your Woman” is about a gun-toting mama on the run from gangsters, with her newborn baby in tow, they might be misled into thinking that it’s a fast-paced action flick. It’s not. This is a thoughtfully acted crime drama where the emphasis is on a family’s collateral damage because of a gangster’s misdeeds. The movie shows what happens during one woman’s survival journey during a specific period of time; how she got some unexpected help along the way; and how her life perspective drastically changed.
Amazon Studios released “I’m Your Woman” in select U.S. cinemas on December 4, 2020. Amazon Prime Video premieres the movie on December 11, 2020.