NEW YORK — WE hear a lot of talk about ``family values'' nowadays, but Hollywood can't claim to have supported them very fervently. The studios are so busy cranking out epics and action-thrillers that family stories have a hard time getting told. That's why I'm always pleasantly surprised when an American movie deals with a family subject - and when it's intelligently done, I'm positively delighted. From the title of Jessica Lange's new picture, ``Men Don't Leave,'' you might not guess it is a family story; in fact, it's hard to say what that title means, even after you've seen the movie. But the story turns out to be a thoughtful, sensitive look at a mother struggling to raise a pair of lively children. While it has some problems, it's one of the most touching movies I've seen so far this year.
The tale begins with a few scenes of life in an ordinary, even old-fashioned family: Dad works; Mom looks after the house; and the boys - a high-schooler and his little brother - seem to be growing up happy and healthy.
Then disaster strikes. Dad is killed in an accident, and Mom doesn't know how she'll raise the boys without him. She gets a job, but it doesn't work out, and money is dangerously low. There's only one solution left - moving to the big city, namely Baltimore, where Mom can earn more money for the three of them to live on. What she doesn't count on are the temptations of city life, especially for the youngsters, and the loneliness all three of them continue to suffer now that Dad is gone.
This could have been an overly sentimental tale, and sure enough, sentimentality is the movie's problem: There are times when it just wants to make us cry, not think or understand.
Fortunately, though, most of the picture is delicately written and smartly directed; it doesn't rush from one emotional event to another, but lets us sink reflectively into the characters' lives. The acting is terrifically lifelike, too, especially when Ms. Lange is on-screen, making her surprisingly complicated character into a warm and living person. This would be an impressive performance even if the versatile Lange weren't on-screen the Holocaust drama ``Music Box'' during this same busy season.
Special credit also goes to Joan Cusack as the teen-age boy's slightly older girlfriend; her scenes with Lange are some of the funniest I've seen in months. Charlie Korsmo is appealing as the younger child, and Chris O'Donnell is usually convincing as his big brother. The only actor who doesn't mesh with the movie's overall tone is Arliss Howard, whose deadpan expression and quiet voice make him a near-parody of the ``sensitive boyfriend'' type.
``Men Don't Leave'' - one of the best offerings in Hollywood's current crop - is the first picture directed by Paul Brickman since ``Risky Business,'' which was a brilliant piece of filmmaking, aside from its idiotic story. Brickman allows ``Men Don't Leave'' to get a little weepy at times, but just when you think it's veering out of control, the filmmaker comes up with a scene that's like a dream come magically to life - as when Mom meets her new boyfriend.