At first glance, Untamed Heart (1993) seems like nothing more than your standard chick flick destined for regular rotation on the Lifetime Channel. And to be fair, there are definitely elements of that much-maligned subgenre but what redeems the film is Marisa Tomei who delivers a wonderful performance that transcends the sometimes cliché-ridden story. There is also actor-director Tony Bill’s excellent casting against type of Christian Slater who, for a rare moment in time, dropped his cool guy shtick to play a shy, socially awkward character. Bill gets solid performances out of his entire cast, which almost makes you forget the predictable beats of the story. The end result is a bittersweet holiday treat.
As a child, Adam lived in an orphanage run by nuns. He was the recipient of a heart transplant and was fed a fairy tale story that he was given a baboon’s heart thanks to the heroic efforts of his adventurer father. A sickly boy, he (Christian Slater) grew up to be reserved bus boy at a local Minneapolis diner. Untamed Heart takes us back to the early 1990s as soon as we hear the DNA remix of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.” Caroline (Marisa Tomei) is a plucky waitress at the same diner. She is unlucky in love and right from her first scene, where she’s dumped by her boyfriend (that he would reject someone that looks like Tomei strains credibility but I digress) right before Christmas no less, we are rooting for her. This is because Tomei comes across as instantly sympathetic. Breaking her heart is like kicking a puppy fer Chrissakes!
Caroline commiserates with her best friend and fellow waitress Cindy (Rosie Perez), the sassy and cynical counterpoint to her co-worker. Tony Bill does an excellent job of establishing the diner and the colorful characters that populate it in only a few minutes. His camera moves around just enough so we get a sense of the layout of the place and then juxtaposes it with the people that work there to create a warm, inviting place. The cozy atmosphere of the diner is created with the help of Christmas lights and music, like the Cowboy Junkies’ dreamy cover of “Blue Moon.” The song is used to great effect in a shot where both Caroline and Adam are isolated in the same frame together. She is on one side, sitting by herself, and he’s on the other side, sweeping up the floor. This isn’t some sterile set located on a soundstage but a place that looks lived in and that has probably existed for many years. Set during the holiday season, Bill really conveys a sense of place – not just the diner but also the many establishing shots of a cold, snowy Minneapolis that sets the right atmospheric tone.
We see what a kind, nurturing person Caroline is when she tends to a nasty cut on Adam’s hand. She is oblivious to the intense, longing looks he gives her while she fixes him up. The way Christian Slater plays this scene is quite something. He doesn’t say anything to her (until the very end of the scene when she’s left and he says a quiet, “Thanks.”) but the actor conveys everything through his expressive eyes. Caroline and Adam develop a special bond when, one night, he rescues here from two guys (a pre-Sex and the City Willie Garson and Homicide: Life on the Street’s Kyle Secor) from attacking and trying to rape her.
Bill does a nice job of gradually developing the romance between Caroline and Adam. It is a slow burn that is accelerated by her attack. Afterwards, they have now shared something intensely personal and maybe for the first time she really notices him. Caroline is obviously moved by his selfless act and one gets the impression that he’s the first guy to look out for her, to be there for her when she needed it and not ask for anything in return. It is these scenes of their budding romance where the film is at its very best. We have become emotionally invested in Caroline and Adam and care about what happens to them.
Marisa Tomei is so good in this film. Fresh from her Academy Award-winning turn in My Cousin Vinny (1992) (?!), she plays a much more realistic character. Caroline is a bit of mess (as she says at one point, “My life is like watching the Three Stooges in Spanish.”). She has lousy taste in men and just wants to be loved by someone. Her chatty behavior is contrasted with Adam’s near-mute conduct but once they get involved she gradually gets him to open up. Tomei conveys a touching vulnerability that is quite endearing. The haunted look she adopts after her attack is heartbreaking. Most importantly, she has fantastic chemistry with Christian Slater, which is absolutely vital for a film like this. Their burgeoning romance is completely believable.
Untamed Heart is easily the best performance of Slater’s career. He showed that he could dial everything down and deliver a surprisingly minimalist performance. Freed from pages of dialogue, he has to rely more on his body language and his eyes to convey what Adam is feeling. Even when he does speak it is simply and directly. I’d love to know what Bill saw in Slater’s past performances that inspired him to cast the young actor as Adam. He even looks and acts differently with long, unkempt, unwashed hair and an introverted vibe in the way he acts. Adam avoids contact with people whenever possible. He hinted at this kind of character with the shy side of his protagonist in Pump Up the Volume (1990) but nothing to the extent that we see on display in Untamed Heart. Like Tomei, he also conveys an astonishing vulnerability.
Bill manages to tone down the usually manic, motor-mouthed Rosie Perez but without completely neutralizing her energy. She still gets some good zingers in there, like when she tells her nagging boss, who always complains that her breaks are too long, “You are like wet sand in my underwear.” (his reaction is priceless, by the way)
It’s too bad that once Caroline and Adam become a couple Untamed Heart loses its way a bit and veers dangerously close to disease-of-the-week made-for-T.V. territory – something that we’ve seen a million times. Sadly, the film shifts gears into a doomed romance storyline as Adam’s medical condition threatens his romance with Caroline. We get the standard relationship montage where we see the happy couple buy a car together, go for walks with his dog and so on. This culminates in a cheesy scene where they attend a hockey game and Adam even plucks a stray puck from the air for Caroline. It’s something I could have done without but it really is the odd misstep in an otherwise engaging film. Slater and Tomei do the best they can with what they’re given. However, as their romance deepens, the looks of unconditional love they convey to one another seems so genuine and real. Again, it’s all in the eyes.
Tony Bill was looking for unknown talent for a potential project and asked an agent at William Morris to send over some screenplays done by new writers. The script for Untamed Heart had originally been submitted as a writer’s sample. Bill showed it to producer Helen Bartlett who was moved by its theme of “having someone, somebody you never would have expected, come into your life and really transform you, change you.” Two weeks from Tom Sierchio handing the script for Untamed Heart to his agent, Bill optioned it and MGM agreed to make it.
Bill cast Marisa Tomei based on her audition for his earlier film, Five Corners (1987). She was too young for that film but he had kept track of her career over the years. Tomei found herself drawn to this “very warm story.” In order to perfect a regional accent, she chose a driver from the area who ended up acting as a dialogue coach. Once she had the accent down, she spoke with it on and off the set. When Christian Slater was first offered the part of Adam, he had his doubts and needed to be convinced to do it. He was scared of the role because it was so different from anything he had done before. As he said, “this one was a very internal performance, and at first I wasn’t really sure if I understood that.”
The film was originally set in New Jersey but for logistical reasons the producers could not shoot there and so they began to look for a city that could double for the Garden State. As luck would have it the filmmakers were scouting locations in Minneapolis and realized that it was “architecturally interesting.” They decided to actually set the film in the city as opposed to having it double for New Jersey. The production went on to cast 35 of the film’s 40 roles from the local acting community and utilize an almost completely local crew.
Untamed Heart received generally positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert wrote that the film was "kind of sweet and kind of goofy, and works because its heart is in the right place.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson grudgingly admitted that it was “hopelessly syrupy, preposterous and more than a little bit lame, but, still, somehow it got to me.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman praised Tomei's performance: "With her flashing dark eyes and libidinous overbite, Tomei is adorable — she looks like a flirtatious bunny rabbit — but what's astonishing is the range of expression that passes over those delectable features.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers wrote, “The Rain Man-Dying Young elements in Tom Sierchio's script are pitfalls that Slater dodges with a wonderfully appealing performance. His love scenes with the dazzling Tomei have an uncommon delicacy.” In his review for The New Yorker, Anthony Lane praised Tomei for bringing "startling high spirits to a dullish role. She snatches moments of happiness out of the air and shares them out to anyone who’s around.” However, in his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby felt that the film was “to the mind what freshly discarded chewing gum is to the sole of a shoe: an irritant that slows movement without any real danger of stopping it.”
It has been said about another Tony Bill film, My Bodyguard (1980), that, “it’s a nice, sweet movie, which I mean in the best possible way, with a surprising amount of depth found in its simple story." These words could so easily apply to Untamed Heart. By the film’s end one really feels like you’ve gone on a journey with these characters, especially Caroline who’s changed dramatically from where we saw her at the beginning. She’s gone from an emotional doormat when it comes to relationships to having experienced true love – to give of one’s self and to be there for someone else in return.