She Came to Me Review: Peter Dinklage and Marisa Tomei Find Love and Madness on a Tugboat

Rebecca Miller makes romances. And comedies. And dramas. With character studies still beholden to crazy plots, she’s covered everything from drug addiction to infidelity, incest to ambition. A Rebecca Miller film means releasing expectations, eschewing glossy images and tidy plots, and embracing the mess inherent in life itself. Her films are wild, dreamy, sad, funny — and not at all realistic.

That’s certainly the case with “She Came to Me,” which follows a loosely connected group of people all made absolutely crazy by love. Miller delights in toying with what sounds like a cutesy concept, stretching it to wacky (and occasionally wonderful) ends. It may be most closely aligned with her previous film, the 2015 “Maggie’s Plan” (it also poked at the idea of modern romance), but it shares some of the concerns she mined in her debut “Angela” and its belief that religion offers some sort of purity for those who really dedicate themselves to it.

Steven (Peter Dinklage) is a lauded composer who famously went bonkers after his last opera bombed five years ago, sending him into a deep (“deep“) depression eventually broken by a romance with his then-therapist, now wife Patricia (Anne Hathaway). Steven, whose latest show is due in two weeks, doesn’t really like being social: We meet him huffing and puffing through a cocktail party, which he exits by attempting to hide behind a large potted plant, a prime place for him to check his skyrocketing heart rate.

Steven and the delightfully uptight Patricia have their own problems, but Hathaway turns her supporting role into a meal. She taps into Patricia’s rigidity so deeply that her eventual spin into something very different feels all the more clever “She Came to Me” often functions as an ensemble piece that largely orbits around Steven, but whenever Hathaway’s brutally type-A Patricia appears (this is a woman who has a special lab coat for cleaning), she brings unexpected verve to the film. She’s perhaps the only performer here who knows exactly what her nutty character is doing, or even what she is capable of.

Elsewhere, love is thriving. Patricia’s son Julian (Evan Ellison) and his girlfriend Tereza (Harlow Jane) are in the throes of first love: smart enough to be aware that things might change between them, young enough to hope they don’t. Tereza’s maniacal stepdad Trey (an against-type Brian D’Arcy James) and her cynical mother Magdalena (a heartbreaking Joanna Kulig) don’t help matters. (Other ways in which these disparate love stories combine are one of the film’s deepest pleasures, and won’t be spoiled here.)

When Steven’s writer’s block kicks into overdrive, Patricia (whom he still calls “Doc”) all but tosses him out of the house in hopes he might “get lost” and find something useful along the way. Soon, Steven and his faithful pup Levi are wandering all over Brooklyn before they stumble into a local dive bar in the middle of the morning. And they’re not alone. Here he finds the inspiration for “She Came To Me” (also the name of his own nutty opera): Katrina (Marisa Tomei), a charming tugboat captain (you read that correctly) who awkwardly sweeps Steven off his feet for a tugboat-set dalliance.

It’s enough to break Steven’s writer’s block, that’s for damn sure. The resulting opera is greeted rapturously within the film, but it’s also the tale of a murderous cannibal addicted to romance who also lives on a tugboat. Anyway, it puts him back on top. Everything else? Not so great. Tereza and Julian find themselves in legal trouble, Patricia’s love for cleaning sends her looking for the purity of God, and the real Katrina goes full cuckoo-bananas. Love is madness. Love makes people mad.

Miller grounds some of her kookier details in the trappings of a typical NYC romance: sunlit streets, dreamy brownstones, interconnected tales, hammy declarations of devotion, miscommunications, and (of course) trips to the opera. The surroundings are familiar, but Miller wants to use these tropes to interrogate what romance actually means, the true value of love, and how following your bliss might land you in the nuthouse.

It’s funny and strange and sometimes truly dark. Not all of it works or even coheres, but it also offers a fresh look at what love does to people, both on the big screen and out in the world. No one makes films quite like Miller; we just wish she would come to our screens more often.

Grade: B

“She Came to Me” premiered at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

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