I'm Losing You Gets Second Chance On DVD

Rosanna Arquette, Amanda Donohoe, Gina Gershon, Buck Henry, Salome Jens, Frank Langella, Andrew McCarthy, Elizabeth Perkins. Directed by Bruce Wagner. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (letterbox). Dolby Digital 5.1. 103 minutes. 1998. Sterling Home Entertainment 7325. NR. $24.95.

Novelist Bruce Wagner earned rave reviews for I'm Losing You, his savagely sardonic tale of fear and loathing in the Hollywood food chain. But that didn't keep filmmaker Bruce Wagner from taking a thoroughly ruthless approach to reshaping and re-imagining his own material for the screen. Not so much an adaptation as a distillation, the movie version is at once arch and ineffably poignant, darkly comical and affectingly mournful, as it examines the interlocking tragedies that bind an extended Los Angeles family.

Frank Langella gives one of his finest film performances as Perry Krohn, the producer of a fabulously successful sci-fi TV series that bears a suspicious resemblance to Star Trek ("He knows it's crap on one level," a friend explains, "but on another level he's quite proud of it.") Unfortunately, Perry isn't destined to live long and prosper: As I'm Losing You begins, on the eve of the producer's 60th birthday, he learns he has terminal lung cancer and less than a year to live. In the first of the movie's many ironies, when he gets the bad news from his doctor, Perry is surrounded by luxury. But all the fortune and fame in the world won't delay his death sentence.

At first, Perry chooses not to say anything about his failing health to his son, Bertie (Andrew McCarthy), a once-promising actor who's struggling to sustain his optimism while unsuccessfully trudging along the comeback trail. "You walk around like you're Matt Damon," jeers his drug-addled ex-wife (Gina Gershon), "but you can't even get a RadioShack commercial!" The casting of an ex-Brat Packer as a premature has-been is an inspired touch, but McCarthy's subtle performance goes far beyond a wink-wink, nudge-nudge inside joke. Even while ignorant of his fther's condition, Bertie can't avoid intimations of mortality.

To make ends meet, Bertie gets a job selling the life insurance policies of AIDS patients, in order to obtain cash advances for the dying (and, of course, a commission for himself). Unfortunately, his first client is a longtime family friend, Philip Dragom (Buck Henry), a former costume designer for Perry's TV series. Even more unfortunately, Bertie falls in love with another AIDS patient, Aubrey (Elizabeth Perkins), a beautiful socialite whose barbed humor can't quite disguise her mounting dread. Bertie behaves as though, on some unconscious level, he believes he can control matters of life and death, and can cure Aubrey's illness simply by ignoring it. Fate has some nasty surprises in store for him.

Meanwhile, Rachel (Rosanna Arquette)—Perry's niece, who's been raised by the producer and his psychiatrist wife (Salome Jens) as their own daughter—responds to a shocking revelation by immersing herself in Jewish tradition. Specifically, when she finally learns the truth about the deaths of her parents, she becomes fascinated with the ritual cleansing of the deceased. Wagner doesn't shy away from the strong possibility that Rachel is unhinged. (Arquette's portrayal is effectively ambiguous.) On the other hand, Wagner also suggests that Rachel's approach to dealing with death is no less rational than Perry's throwing himself into an affair with a beautiful British TV actress (Amanda Donohoe).

As Wagner notes in his chatty commentary for the DVD edition, he wanted "to make something more prayerful" out of his novel, something that would convey "the soul of the book rather than some of its uglier aspects." At the same time, however, he wanted to have a few good laughs with what he calls "this grim meditation." The dialogue crackles with a wit born of not-so-quiet desperation, and the quips sound perfectly natural coming from people who refuse to let suffering undermine their sophistication. "I'm death warmed over," Philip jokes when Perry reveals his own incurable malady, "You're death warming up." In another scene, Perry can't avoid a wisecrack even while his composure cracks. His cancer, his tearfully tells his wife, "is stage four—just like the reactor at Chernobyl."

Not surprisingly, I'm Losing You—the title refers to a lot more than a fading call on a cell-phone—made only a fleeting appearance in a few theaters during its token 1999 theatrical release. Wagner and Arquette freely joke about the movie's lack of commercial success on the audio commentary track. (While Arquette giggles, Wagner promises to make the DVD more "commercial" by including nude photos of his lead actress.) On the other hand, Wagner sounds genuinely grateful for getting a second chance to reach audiences in a DVD edition that faithfully preserves the elegiac tone and elegant look of his demanding but rewarding drama.