Lost and Found: Personal Effects

I know I’m a lot older than you…and I know I’m all fucked up…

Linda, Personal Effects

Michelle Pfeiffer’s long and storied movie career is filled with so many classic and iconic roles. I’m talking about you, Frankie, Susie, Angela, and Selina, among others. So, a small movie like Personal Effects (2009), that basically went straight to video, is going to suffer by comparison. I would argue though, that any Michelle performance is worth watching because she always turns in something memorable. She’s just one of our best living actors, full stop.

I’d wager that Personal Effects hasn’t been seen by many over the years. It’s very much a lost film in Michelle’s filmography, which is understandable given that it had no major theatrical rollout and disappeared into the crowded home video market immediately. It’s also unfortunate. The film’s not a lost classic, by any means, but it’s the sort that gets under your skin, makes you uncomfortable at times, but also leaves you with moments of hope among the despair that stick with you forever—that is, if you give it a fair chance.

Despairing is a good word to describe Personal Effects. Written and directed by David Hollander and based on a Rick Moody short story, the film tells the story of former college wrestling star Walter (Ashton Kutcher) and wedding planner and mom Linda (Pfeiffer), who meet in group therapy for people who’ve lost loved ones to violent crimes. The subject matter is heavy: Walter’s twin sister was brutally raped, murdered, and set on fire. Linda’s husband was shot dead by a friend outside a bar after a drunken argument. These characters are at different points in their grief. Walter quit his wrestling scholarship and came back to home to help his mom raise his now-motherless niece. He’s closed off and seething inside with rage at the man on trial for his sister’s murder. Linda is processing her grief slightly better, maybe because she’s raising a deaf, mute teenage son and has to compartmentalize. In many ways, Personal Effects is a sympathetic portrait of how so much sorrow seems disproportionately heaped on the lower-middle class, who must fight every day for every inch they gain, or lose, in life.

Over the course of the film, Linda and Walter become friends, then lovers. Linda knows it’s love, even if Walter is too young and too emotionally damaged to see it for the gift that it is. The movie’s most memorable scene for me comes right after a particularly devastating low point for Walter, when Linda tries to comfort him, gently holding his face and asking only that he let her love him. Pfeiffer is absolutely brilliant throughout, making Linda’s hard-earned journey from grief to some tentative form of acceptance powerfully moving. While not on par with Pfeiffer, Kutcher still deserves praise for convincingly portraying Walter’s staggering depression. Together, the two actors convey a heartfelt May-December romance, which blooms both despite and because of their respective traumas.

There are several small, touching moments throughout that stick with me. Walter, awkwardly rushing to open the door for Linda on their first date. Linda, later that same evening, planting a passionate first kiss on Walter lips in the middle of an empty dance floor. Walter, finding a sense of relief by mentoring Linda’s son Clay (Spencer Hudson) in wrestling. Kathy Bates as Gloria, Walter’s mom, finally breaking her composure late in the film, opening the floodgates of a mother’s pent-up grief.

As a Pfeifferologist, I find this particular part of her career endlessly fascinating, and especially her choice of roles. After a five-year hiatus to spend more quality time with her family, she returned in a movie about an “older” woman and a younger man falling in love in the extremely underrated romantic comedy I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007). Then came a couple of delicious villain roles in Hairspray (2007) and Stardust (2007), followed by two more roles as “older” women falling for younger men in Personal Effects and Cherí (2009). None of these movies or roles get the respect they deserve.

Personal Effects certainly has its weaknesses—contrived coincidences and underdeveloped secondary characters, among them—but it’s still compelling and heartbreaking, featuring a tender exploration of two people finding an imperfect love through shared trauma and grief. Michelle’s performance is simply beautiful, with nary a misstep. In her hands, Linda is grief-stricken, hopeful, scared, and determined. She’s a complex woman who contains multitudes. In other words, she’s a real person.

While I don’t think Personal Effects will ever be hailed as a lost masterpiece, I do believe it deserves to be found by a much wider audience. It’s bleak at times, yet also tenderly beautiful, with just enough hope seeping in around the edges of despair to leave a lasting impact.

Personal Effects is currently streaming on Tubi.

3 thoughts on “Lost and Found: Personal Effects

  1. Personal Effects is still one of the gaps in my Pfeiffer pfandom, in fact before reading this piece I hadn’t really thought about it since your post on Words Seem Out of Place, nearly 5 years ago.
    I know it didn’t get a cinema release, and seeing Ashton Kutcher’s name probably put me off, but as the blogosphere’s leading Pfeifferologist, you’ve convinced me to finally watch this one. Tubi isn’t available in my area, but I’m determined to track this pfilm down somehow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That old post is the last time I rewatched the film too. I actually enjoyed it more this time, although it’s quite depressing so “enjoy” might not be the best word. Hope you can track down the DVD!

      Liked by 1 person

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