"Jupiter's Wife" is a documentary that focuses on a single homeless woman and her pack of dogs as they roam the 843 acres of New York City's famed Central Park. It opens simply enough, with director Michel Negroponte handling the voice-over himself and, against a backdrop of photos from his childhood, as well as vintage Victorian-era shots, he shares how much meaning the Manhattan park holds for him. Then we meet Maggie, a woman in her early forties who has a perpetual smile and a backpack full of essentials that set her apart from the stereotypical homeless person. For one thing, there's a toothbrush she uses daily, and an apparent emphasis on fitness. We see her dance and stretch, and, later in the film, even taking a free class in gymnastics, leotard and all. She also has a backpack full of uncommonly used words and phrases, such as "amenable," "beleaguered," "regalia," and "Elizabethan setting." Negroponte is intrigued, and so are we. He follows her for two years with his hand-held camera in order to create the film, but the 78 minutes we spend with Maggie is enough to leave a lasting impact.
The cover proclaims the 1995 film a "haunting, real-life mystery," with a pedigree that won't quit: Winner of Best Documentary Feature from the Santa Barbara Film Festival and Vancouver International Film Festival, and Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, also dubbed "one of the 10 best films of the year" by the San Francisco Chronicle. And for once, the hype isn't too overblown. Like time-lapse nature photography, this Central Park saga unfolds as a fascinating study of human nature . . . and unnatural human behavior. Because Negroponte shares his growing and shifting interest in his subject and pursues leads like a private detective, "Jupiter's Wife" also plays like a real-life mystery. It will hold your attention for the full 78 minutes, and probably change the way you think and feel about the homeless.
The film gets its title from an appropriated Greek mythology that Maggie has constructed to give her life a scale and substance that we suspect somehow balances her lowly existence and the tragic events that brought her to that state. It goes something like this: She is Jupiter's wife, and wears walkman headphones most of the time because this is how she's able to hear messages from him. A believer in ESP, Maggie tells Negroponte that she had been expecting him, and relates how ESP enables her to communicate with the children she can no longer see. She's the daughter of actors Robert Ryan and Maureen O'Sullivan, Maggie tells him. And one of her dogs wears Jill St. John's little jacket. Maggie grew up with a family on Long Island, but insists that she was switched at birth. She gives the people who raised her the same kind of mythological status she has assigned her former husband. To her, now, they are Homera and Eris, and the truth that Negroponte gradually discovers about this upbeat homeless woman is what makes this cinematic journey satisfying and worth taking. To say any more would be to spoil things, but suffice it to say that just as you begin to believe that Maggie is totally delusional—after all, her homeless friend has a similar fantastic lineage (father, Albert Einstein, mother, Greta Garbo, but adopted and raised by the Kennedys)—there are some awfully ironic twists that involve celebrities and film clips from the ‘60s that Negroponte included.
Negroponte's technique allows us to draw close to Maggie and also develop a sense of how her life is somehow mirrored by other denizens of Central Park. From time to time he turns his camera on others to show the rampant eccentricity that the park seems to inspire, but he also creates reflective moments by focusing on leaves, cardboard boxes, or close-ups of objects. Like a photojournalist, he's there to film the birth of a litter from one of Maggie's dogs, and follows her to the vet, where Maggie lists her address as 865 Madison Ave. (but neglects to mention that it's the stairs of St. James Church). There are also shots of Negroponte and his children that seem an intrusive and all but unnecessary reminder of normal family lives that exist outside Central Park and its homeless denizens. But those shots allow the director to explain a gap in his filming when he had to leave the project for his own family, only to return to what used to be Maggie's shanty, now in shambles. Where had she gone? And the search for Maggie continues until its surprising end.