Having spent a few decades of my life residing in northern New Jersey, I was a bit hesitant in approaching HBO's production of Hysterical Blindness, starring Uma Thurman, Juliette Lewis, Gena Rowlands, and Ben Gazzara. Representations of the "Garden State" vary wildly in American popular culture (and usually veer toward the negative), and the idea of watching a film chiefly concerned with two "big hairs" in late eighties Bayonne was enough to make me shudder. (I should qualify this by stating that this was not only because of potentially lazy and garish stereotyping – since I lived through that particular era in northern New Jersey, I possessed virtually no desire to return to it, even from the relatively safe distance of my living room in New York.) Resolutely inserting the DVD into my player, I was subsequently pleased to discover that not only does the film act as an absolutely authentic representation of the period – it's uncannily anthropological in that respect – it's also an effective, small-scale character drama (rather than plot-driven) that is admirably performed by a pitch-perfect cast.
Directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Kama Sutra, Salaam Bombay!) with compassion and a sure eye, Hysterical Blindness (based upon the stage play, and adapted here, by Laura Cahill) has literally afflicted Debby (Thurman) at her workplace. As she conveys this story to Beth (Lewis) while traveling in her Camaro – a perfect hallmark of late eighties, working class life in northern New Jersey if there ever was one – we learn that it was induced by stress of an unknown origin. Beth remarks with the customary, mouth-breathing "Oh My Gawd," and asks if Debby has regained her sight as yet (the fact that Beth has to ask, even though Debby drove the car to Beth's to pick her up in the first place, speaks volumes). As they reach Ollie's, a local watering hole and their apparent oasis, we soon learn that Debby's "hysterical blindness" is as figurative as it was earlier literal.
As the two enter the bar to quickly surmise their evening's prospects, they scurry into the bathroom to prepare (Cigarettes? Check. Lighter? Check. Hairspray? Check). Their respective plights soon become evident: Debby pines for a respectful, loving relationship and still lives at home with her mother Virginia (Rowlands), a divorcee and waitress at the Skyways Diner; Beth, a single mother to the prematurely wise Amber Autumn (Jolie Peters), simply wants a "good time," generally by ignoring the fact that she is no longer in high school and that her life has significantly changed with the addition of her daughter. Beth is apparently comfortable with her lot and her sense of self; Debby, however, is ridiculously – and woefully – high strung, unable to interpret virtually every action of those surrounding her as anything other than an insult or affront. As she storms out of Ollie's after accusing Beth of ignoring her, she meets Rick (Justin Chambers), a new face in the bar with "Patrick Swayze eyes." Desperately trying to make any sort of real contact with somebody of the opposite sex, Debby awkwardly flirts with him and attempts to arrange a future date. After this seemingly inconsequential meeting, Debby is charged with the enthusiasm of a schoolgirl with a serious crush – unfortunately, she also begins to extrapolate meaning from the somewhat amiable (yet virtually meaningless) conversation, potentially setting herself up for romantic disaster.
Meanwhile, Virginia has begun seeing Nick (Gazzara), a kindly widower who frequents her diner and will sit only at her station. Debby is not enthusiastic about the situation, as her father had abruptly abandoned her and Virginia years ago. Understanding her fears, yet mindful of her own needs, Virginia decides to continue seeing Nick despite her daughter's protests. Debby also fails to practice what she preaches, exercising none of the cynicism and caution that she affords her mother in her own romantic affairs. While on a first date of sorts with Rick, Debby's only response to the awkwardness and inarticulate nature of the evening is to boast of her sexual prowess – when Rick unsurprisingly takes her up on the challenge, Debby's face conveys both the disappointment and regret that one can only assume has been suffered many, many times before. As the uncertain romantic futures of Debby, Beth, and Virginia move forward, Hysterical Blindness never resorts to easy outs or fatuous drama – rather, it presents a knowing, sometimes rueful, and often very funny portrait of the limited, working class existence of its characters.
Director Nair utilizes her Bayonne surroundings to excellent effect. Debby's worldview, constrained both literally and figuratively, meshes well with her bleak industrial surroundings. The only area of her life that appears to offer her any sense of vibrancy and warmth is Ollie's, which is beautifully rendered by Nair's regular cinematographer Declan Quinn, also responsible for Leaving Las Vegas' hazy, saturated hues. The Bayonne Bridge is clearly (and deliberately) visible in many scenes - its practically a motif - and adds a nicely ironic visual subtext to Debby's mundane existence. There is also a wonderful, urgent sense of time in Hysterical Blindness: Virginia, knowing the value of lessons learned the hard way, is fully aware that she and Nick will probably not have an abundance of it together; Debby, impulsive and driven, is not yet mature or seasoned enough to realize that with patience comes the possibility of insight – and, with that insight, wisdom and the potential for true happiness.
Thurman, who can often appear uncertain and detached in some of her roles, invests in Debby a humanity that is extraordinary to behold. Her performance is a marvel, cringe-worthy (in the best possible sense), and utterly heartfelt. Even as her myopia scuttles her chances at happiness, you cannot help but root for her. Lewis also gives a fine performance – the tics and self-consciously odd mannerisms found in some of her other work is not on display here. Rowlands and Gazzara (it's awfully nice to see them working together again) evoke such a natural rapport and easy charm with each other that it's nearly impossible not to smirk when they share the screen. Along with Nair's subtle, careful direction, the actors render Hysterical Blindness a focused study of largely unfocused lives.
Video: Presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, Hysterical Blindness has been given a fine transfer and looks quite good. Although primarily shot with hand-held cameras, it does not suffer from excessively jittery movements (Nair is too careful with her framing to let that happen). Also, as noted above, Quinn's cinematography is excellent – his evocation of Ollie's is utterly warm, suffused with rich and hazy colors, not dissimilar (I suspect) to the somewhat altered and heightened perceptions of its patrons. The exteriors, with a few notable exceptions, are appropriately drab and unremarkable.
Audio: Hysterical Blindness is presented in DD 5.1, as well as a DD 2.0 stereo mix in English, Spanish, and French. Although the film is almost entirely dialogue driven, the 5.1 offers a nicely balanced – if not terribly busy – mix. The music in the picture is also well selected and rendered, including standards from such eighties mainstays as Whitesnake, Wang Chung, INXS, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, the Pretenders, and Phil Collins.
Extras: Included is a full length commentary track with director Mira Nair. This is an excellent, welcome addition to the DVD – Nair is highly conversant, articulate, forthright, and insightful. In short, this is what a director's commentary should always aspire to be. Also on board are text interviews with Thurman, Lewis, Nair, and Cahill; a small photo gallery; and, lastly, Cast and crew bios.
Final Thoughts: Hysterical Blindness is a slight tale, by turns wise, compassionate, and unafraid to cast an unblinking eye on frustrated (and, in all fairness, occasionally frustrating) lives. Its somewhat meandering narrative is redeemed by the intelligent and considered direction of Nair, and the DVD treatment of Hysterical Blindness is enhanced in no small measure by her commentary (and for that alone the "extras" get a solid three and a half stars).
The performances are stellar across the board, especially by the triumvirate of talented women: Lewis, Rowlands, and the wholly invested Thurman (who also acted as executive producer and won a Golden Globe for her acting efforts). Recommended in general and highly recommended to fans of Nair, Thurman, and anyone who happened to reside in northern New Jersey during the eighties.