Saturday, October 5, 2013

Middle-aged love

Nicole Holofcener makes the kind of film they don’t make any more, and also the kind of film they never really made. Her work reminds you of the golden age of writers like Neil Simon, and of a time when a commercial romantic comedy might star actors like Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson: the movies were only intermittently laugh-out-loud funny, and seldom moved outside a fairly narrow tonal and emotional range, but they were entirely satisfying within those parameters. The word “pleasant” sounds too much like damning with faint praise, but very little contemporary cinema brings the word to mind: Holofcener might be the modern-day standard-bearer of that quality. At the same time of course, she’s a woman, which was seldom the case for the writers of such comedies in previous decades, and almost never for the directors. In Holofcener’s work, with its different emphases and preoccupations, a modern-day Glenda Jackson might ascend from second- to top-billing once in a while.

Enough Said

There’s no point denying though that a finding of pleasantness might actually constitute faint praise, and Holofcener’s new film Enough Said illustrates its limitations as a governing attribute. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Eva, a masseuse who’s sort of drifting through life, sharing custody of her teenage daughter with her ex-husband. At a party she separately meets and hits it off with a poet, Marianne (Catherine Keener), and a divorced man, Albert (James Gandolfini); before long, Marianne is one of her best friends and Albert is her lover. It’s all good, until she finds out the two used to be married, and can’t stand each other anymore, making it implausible to be a soulmate to both of them.

The film is extremely enjoyable to watch, and illustrates most of Holofcener’s customary strengths. Characters and interactions are carefully conceived and grounded; other than the rather endearingly rarified notion of a commercially successful poet, Enough Said is about people living small-scale, repetitive lives in plausibly modest surroundings, depicted with attention to detail and with unforced originality. She allows her performers to shine – Louis-Dreyfus, who’s hardly ever worked in cinema, almost literally does. And the undertones are serious. In previous films like Friends with Money and Please Give, Holofcener explored respectively how poverty defines and limits the place of women, and the intermingling of self-indulgence and altruism: this time, her focus is on loneliness and dissatisfaction, and the effectiveness of various coping strategies. The characters talk several times about their lack of friends, and Eva’s best friend (Toni Collette) almost seems to be wishing for a marriage that’s just slightly worse than the one she’s in, so she’d be justified in ending it (in the meantime, she works out her frustrations by endlessly rearranging the furniture). Albert is plainly overweight, and not likely to do anything about it, something that makes it easy for Eva’s evaluation of him to be affected by Marianne’s bitterness.

James Gandolfini

On that topic, the film unintentionally acquired an unwanted additional subtext when Gandolfini suddenly died before its release, and many reviewers found the film rather poignant, especially because it suggests how his career might have evolved in new directions. Indeed, I couldn’t help wondering about the likely reaction of a hardcore Sopranos fan who unwittingly attended the movie as a means of paying tribute (“What the hell, Tony turned into a f-ing pussy!”). But in truth, his presence sums up the film’s limitations. His relationship with Eva, as the film presents it, consists of little more than quips and banter: there’s little sense of what they actually talk about. They end up in bed on their second date together, but Holofcener cuts right from the first kiss to the post-coital cuddling, sacrificing not only some potentially charming intervening exchanges, but more importantly diluting the film’s punch in dealing with issues of body image and self-esteem. The omission is especially odd if one recalls the already legendary scene in Holofcener’s best film Lovely and Amazing, in which Emily Mortimer (in a startling fusion of actress and character) stands naked to be critiqued by the Dermot Mulroney character.

Holofcener expresses Albert’s isolation by giving him a career as a TV archivist, spending his days safeguarding the frail shadows of old shows; and he refers near the end to his heart being broken. But we never feel that pain, and certainly never come close to a flash of the old Soprano anger. Although it’s a new direction, it often feels like one achieved by flattening and neutering Gandolfini, more than by exploring and challenging him. Something similar might be said about Louis-Dreyfus – as I said, she’s inherently radiant and pleasurable to watch, but she’s not stretched much beyond sitcom limits. It brings to mind previous occasions when Holofcener’s seemed reluctant to push things too hard, as if doubting the audience’s tolerance. In particular, Friends with Money seriously diluted its examination of the theme I described, eschewing much in the way of diagnosis and sticking to softballs, including one of the more dubious happy endings of recent years.

Didn’t say enough

Woody Allen, just about the only survivor from that golden age I mentioned (although of course he always occupied his own distinct place within it) has often pulled his punches too, but this year’s Blue Jasmine has a recurring undercurrent of trauma and anxiety which Enough Said never really approaches. I don’t mean to fall into a trap of criticizing Holofcener for not being someone other than she is, but Enough Said ends up feeling like a film which, in fact, doesn’t actually say enough, or show enough, or make us feel enough. It doesn’t even have the structural interest of her earlier films, being pretty much entirely driven by that central, not particularly believable coincidence.

I also couldn’t help registering the coldness with which, once Eva’s deception falls apart, Marianne simply drops out of the movie, as if she was only ever of interest to the extent of the challenge she represented to the heroine’s romantic fulfillment. It’s the kind of device one expects from a male director, but which we might have hoped Holofcener to avoid. Going back to Glenda Jackson, I remember a female critic years ago (I can’t remember which one unfortunately, and I couldn’t find the quote) saying that even those American films that seem to be about strong women perpetuate the reductive notion that a woman’s only fulfillment comes in the eyes of a man; she held out Jackson’s A Touch of Class as one of the few partial exceptions to this principle. For all its many strengths, I’m afraid Enough Said wouldn’t change anything about that basic assessment.

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