A Case For Greatness: UNTAMED HEART

More than just that Christian Slater baboon heart movie.

Classics never die, but they seldom get replaced. Cinema is populated with enduring, venerated works of art that deservedly adorn list after list, but those lists are rarely updated, and less often expanded to include new, equally worthy entries. Organizations that give out annual awards are constrained not only by the limitations of formatting, but perspective - they can’t anticipate which film will survive the buzz of its initial acclaim or success and become part of the cultural firmament. And then there are just certain films or even genres that too infrequently receive the critical attention they deserve, are too obscure to break through to bigger audiences, or just aren’t taken seriously enough to merit consideration alongside the ones we “all” already know we love or respect. A Case For Greatness, this series, tries to argue for, and to champion, forgotten or underappreciated films in a variety of genres that may be worthy of being called “classics.”

It’s easy to be cynical about love stories, especially around Valentine’s Day. Life is or mostly seems way too complicated for true love to supply us with a perfect soul mate, save the day, or solve all of our problems. But there is something about seeking a balance between that imaginary, perhaps unattainable ideal and accepting the mundane realities of relationships - both good and bad - that makes them worth pursuing, at least in my limited experience. And long before I’d found the person I want to spend the rest of my life with, or quite frankly, even a long weekend, Untamed Heart seemed to capture that lover’s challenge, or maybe opportunity. And revisiting it today with the benefit both of more than 25 years of perhaps more modern, clear-eyed depictions of “love,” and getting into (and out of) numerous long-term relationships of my own, director Tony Bill taps into something genuinely timeless and romantic, even if it’s sometimes hidden beneath a story that feels like it could only have been told back in 1993.

Bill’s film stars Marisa Tomei as an unlucky-in-love Minneapolis waitress named Caroline who gets rescued from sexual assault by Adam (Christian Slater), an introverted busboy who claims to be the recipient of a magical baboon heart. The two fall into a surprisingly easy rapport - she talks nonstop, he loves listening to her - and soon fall into a quiet, intimate romance. But after the guys Adam fought off return to exact their revenge, Caroline learns that Adam’s heart is indeed special - it has a potentially fatal defect that desperately needs treatment. And as they continue to fall deeper in love with one another, Caroline must reconcile her affection for Adam’s gentle naivete and the growing health risk that could take him away from her.

What’s sort of funny - maybe more remarkable in retrospect - is how audience reactions to the premise of the film seem to dovetail perfectly into the cynicism and hope that Bill, working with screenwriter Tom Sierchio, are fighting against. “Really?” I hear echoed in a quarter-century of responses to my evangelizing for this film. “A baboon heart? That sounds stupid.” And honestly, they’re right - which is probably why MGM changed its name from The Baboon Heart, a tribute to “Baby Fae,” an infant who successfully received a cross-species heart transplant in 1984. But the movie itself acknowledges that the premise, either as a fantasy or medical reality, sounds absurd. Adam is understandably branded a weirdo by his coworkers, and even at the height of her love for him, Caroline delicately tries to dispel the notion that this story, told to Adam when he was a scared, unloved orphan, is based in fact.

But the movie works largely because Tomei’s Caroline is its center, and not Adam. The fantasy of the idiosyncratic young man and the young woman who loves him unconditionally is, for sure, a well-established narrative, but seldom does it offer such sensitivity and insight into the perspective of that young woman as Sierchio does in his script. In the film’s opening scene, Caroline rushes home from work to change for a date with her boyfriend, who promptly breaks up with her upon arrival. Her reaction is understandably one of heartbreak and disappointment, but it’s also one of clear-eyed recognition that she threw herself into a relationship that wasn’t right, or healthy, and part of a larger pattern of behavior that repeats itself over and over.

The truth is that outside of his “origin story,” Adam isn’t that interesting. In fact, what makes him interesting is his interest in Caroline. Although some of his then-“noble” behavior might seem (or fully is) creepy today, it’s all successfully filtered not just through his interest in Caroline, but the reflection of who she is and what she offers him just by proximity. For example, the first thing audiences learn from Adam’s behavior is that he has been following Caroline home each night, from a distance, to make sure she gets home safe. He later confesses that he has come into her house, and her bedroom, on multiple occasions, to watch her sleep; as disturbing as that news may be, it makes some sense within the context of the story - he sleeps poorly at night, disturbed by dreams (or nightmares) about his mythical heart, and takes comfort in her comparative serenity.

It feels particularly important to highlight these transgressions in light of a very real and ongoing need to acknowledge inappropriate even if well-intentioned male behavior. It’s not an excuse but it is an explanation to say that this movie came out in 1993, before “toxicity” had begun to be recognized. And it does change aspects of their relationship that not all viewers will, or should, accept or enjoy. (Rewatching it for the first time in probably 15 years, this was easily the part I thought held up least well.) But the movie gives Caroline an identity, and an agency as a character, that few before in this not especially rarified genre (and still too few since), have matched. She is a person undimmed or diminished by her failures, personal or professional, searching for something to follow through on and do well; and for her, that required a person that she could love unconditionally who quite frankly needed that love, and it gave them the same peace it did her. Adam was that vessel - that recipient.

Bill also carefully observes the pain, fear and shame of the sexual assault that Caroline endures. After she’s taken a few days off of work to try and recuperate from the incident, she privately approaches Adam to ask that he not mention it to anyone, quickly realizing that he won’t and wouldn’t have even if she hadn’t asked. She doesn’t even tell her coworker and best friend Cindy (Rosie Perez) until much later, when Cindy tries to set her up on a date after beginning her fledgling courtship with Adam. The way that moment is handled is really tender and thoughtful, and Tomei expresses Caroline’s anguish and anxiety so beautifully while staying true to the character’s remarkable resilience. That moment, combined with a delicate moment of unconsummated intimacy between Caroline and Adam, gives her a sense of ownership of her body - she understands and controls it even if Adam doesn’t yet - and never shames her for either being a victim of sexual violence or her sexuality in general.

The movie unfortunately came out in a uniquely disadvantaged position, after Tomei was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for her wonderfully big turn in My Cousin Vinny but before she’d won, which may account for its relatively quick disappearance. But notwithstanding my own 17-year-old crush on the actress, I felt like she deserved to win more for this performance than the one that she actually did, as it evidenced not just soulful relatability but her magnetic, complex humanity, projected across a character that otherwise might have been reduced to a cliché or stereotype. Slater similarly breathes dimensionality into a character that could be a cartoon, and it’s fascinating to watch a young actor who broke out in Hollywood with a series of really dynamic, charismatic performances, rein all of those natural instincts in to channel Adam’s purity and innocence. And Perez’ performance as Cindy feels like a perfect foil for Tomei’s Caroline, a real best friend who both comforts and challenges her.

Bill is an Oscar-winning producer of The Sting who transitioned into directing with My Bodyguard in 1980 and subsequently moved back and forth between television and film projects. His sensitivity with this material feels uncommon, not just because he makes a familiar story feel fresh and original, but he shifts the focus of what perhaps reasonably could have been a star vehicle for Slater into a showcase for the character, and actress, playing his love interest. With an utterly ordinary but absolutely adorable young woman like Tomei’s Caroline as its anchor, Untamed Heart was in 1993 the kind of movie that made my naïve heart believe in love before I really knew what that was; but 25 years later, it reminds audiences to hold onto that sometimes childlike sense of romance and optimism even when it feels like you’ve been beaten down by the realities of adulthood.