When John Cassavetes died in 1989, he left behind a body of work--movies like Shadows, Faces, Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night--that had long defined him as America's premier independent filmmaker. He also left behind an unfilmed screenplay, at one time called She's DeLovely (after the Cole Porter song), and later re-titled She's So Lovely, as a completed film, directed by Nick Cassavetes, his son.

Written in a less politically correct time than the present, this jagged romance by Cassavetes pere celebrates the passionate flophouse union of Eddie (Sean Penn) and Maureen (Robin Wright Penn), working-class young marrieds with a thirst for alcohol and each other. One night, after not seeing Eddie for three days, a pregnant Maureen hangs out with Kiefer (James Gandolfini), a predatory next-door neighbor who paws her and plies her with whiskey. When things get out of hand, Maureen breaks a bottle over Kiefer's head and is brutally beaten in return. The next morning, a returned Eddie, crazed and incoherent, goes looking for his wife's assailant and winds up shooting an officer from the city mental ward's mobile response unit.

Ten years later, Eddie is about to leave the asylum where he has been languishing, unvisited and ignored, for all this time, by Maureen. The latter has embarked on an entirely new life, married to a rich contractor named Joey (John Travolta), and living in a nice house with her three daughters, the oldest of which is Eddie's child. Eddie is a dubious choice for release--he seems to think he's only been incarcerated for three months--but he's eager to say the right thing to Miss Green (Gena Rowlands), the social worker who controls his future. Once out of the institution, Eddie makes a bee line for Maureen's picture-perfect world, accompanied by his sidekick Shorty (Harry Dean Stanton), who's got the mug and demeanor of a prize fighter's corner man. Fearing the worst, Joey, the smooth provider with an edgy streak, is ready to do battle with Maureen's first husband, but, for all his well-tailored street smarts, Joey hasn't reckoned on the power of love.

She's So Lovely is being marketed as 'a film by Nick Cassavetes from a fable by John Cassavetes.' To some extent, that's an apt description of this hugely entertaining but oddly incomplete movie. One doesn't have to be an expert on screenplay structure to recognize that if a script has three acts, She's So Lovely is missing Act 3, that pretty critical part that generally contains the narrative's resolution. Of course, in a fable, all bets can be off. Because Eddie and Maureen are truly in love and willing to prove that love by violence, Joey can't possibly keep them apart, and who cares what those three kids might want, or even deserve? Cassavetes' script rejoices in a certain dark anarchy that today's filmgoers might hesitate to hold up to the light.

But if Cassavetes fils honors his father's spirit, he nonetheless departs from some of that filmmaker's style, with its tolerance for long takes and improvisations. She's So Lovely, at least in terms of visuals and pacing, is a stylish 1990s movie (Thierry Arbogast's wide-screen photography is thrilling), even if its characters sometimes behave like leftover guests from a '60s therapy session or beat-generation party. Sean Penn, who reportedly was John Cassavetes' first choice to play Eddie, is immensely engaging and a bit scary in the role; his touching scene with the magnificent Rowlands is the high point of the movie. As Maureen, Robin Wright Penn dazzles in her early scenes and hangs on gamely once the action shifts to suburbia, where her character seems beached by the screenplay. Happily, in what amounts to an extended cameo, Travolta finds the bizarre humor that clings to a character who represents the voice of reason in a John Cassavetes world where reason doesn't have a lot of currency.

--Ed Kelleher