Two short stories by Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov seem like an unlikely source for a contemporary romantic comedy, but veteran screenwriter and first-time director Richard LaGravenese credits "The Kiss" and "Misery" as inspiration for "Living Out Loud." And rightly so, since the plot of this '90s version of "An Unmarried Woman" hinges upon both.
When the wealthy cardiologist husband of Judith Nelson (the always likeable Holly Hunter) leaves her for another woman, her luxury co-op on the Upper East Side becomes an empty shell for a very lonely woman. Forcing herself to get out, she visits Jaspers, a blues club, to hear her favorite diva, Liz Bailey (Queen Latifah, looking a lot like another Bailey named Pearl). After the show, Judith praises the singer but is ignored, just as she seems to be by everyone since starting a life of her own.
Searching for the bathroom, Judith opens a wrong door and is suddenly kissed by a man (Elias Koteas) mistaking her for another woman. That unexpected kiss brings renewed hope and optimism to Judith. When she arrives home she strikes up a conversation with her apartment doorman, Pat (Danny DeVito), someone who she has previously ignored. Recently divorced after 25 years of marriage and also suffering from the death of his teen-age daughter, the down-on-his-luck Pat and Judith strike up an alliance that sustains the possibility of romance for the entire film.
LaGravenese, who is responsible for penning the screenplays for two other romantic fantasies ("The Bridges of Madison County" and "The Horse Whisperer"), shows firm competence in his first directorial effort. His screenplay is extremely non-formulaic, taking the viewer on many unexpected twists and turns, although in several difficult-to-comprehend fantasy sequences it appears as if LaGravenese isn't quite sure what he is trying to say about Judith.
Hunter, on the other hand, seems to perfectly understand what makes her character tick. Her Southern accent and relaxed demeanor seem as out-of-synch with the snooty world of New York's Upper East Side as Judith does. DeVito, whose production company Jersey Films produced the film, brings an incredibly restrained pathos to the role of Pat, making it easy to believe that Hunter would be so drawn to him. The chemistry established by Hunter and DeVito is perfect for the path that their relationship is to take.
Latifah's Liz, who finally does acknowledge Judith and becomes a peripheral character, has a way with the blues that has previously been untapped. Her renditions of several bluesy standards nicely underscore the dilemmas Judith faces, but it would have been nice to see Latifah's character more fully utilized.
Ultimately "Living Out Loud" is about discarding a former life and reconnecting with one's self. And in making that journey, "Living Out Loud" offers a little to laugh about, a little to cry about and a lot to enjoy along the way.