In a world where men still dominate domestic filmmaking, and women are (wrongly) thought by some to be unfunny, it’s a pleasure to report on not one but two fine comedies written and directed by women. I finally caught up with In a World…, actress Lake Bell’s filmmaking debut, and I’m happy to say “finally,” as most independent movies flop around big city arthouses for a week or two before disappearing into the maw of VOD. Her gem, set in the milieu of voiceover work (a field I have a little experience in) and graced with meaty, faceted characterizations that would delight Robert Altman, has staying power, and I’m pleased to talk it up.
Nicole Holofcener has been at this for almost twenty years, and with Enough Said has delivered her most appealing film, a truly adult romantic comedy free of rom-com cliches and crudeness. Labeled a “female Woody Allen,” her movies have undercurrents that Allen’s sketchier films lack, and are more specifically rooted in place, and less touristy, than his are after he largely decamped from New York. Neither gut-bustingly funny nor go-for-the-jugular dramatic, they exist in a corner of their own. (Her TV work, like episodes of HBO’s late, lamented Enlightened, is similarly distinctive.)
In her first feature role since, coincidentally, Allen’s Deconstructing Harry (1997), Julia Louis-Dreyfus gives a believably frazzled (yet still luminous) performance as Eva, a masseur whose love life is as creaky as her clientele. Divorced, lonely, and at loose ends as her daughter plans to leave their LA home for college in the Northeast, Eva reluctantly agrees to attend a party. (Holofcener, whose life and career have been evenly split between NY and LA, ribs the need to drive to get anywhere in the city.) There, flitting among tables of strangers, she has two life-altering encounters. Marianne (Catherine Keener), a poet, becomes a client, then a friend and confidante, a rare thing to find as middle age sets in. Albert (James Gandolfini), who works at a TV archive, offers something more difficult for Eva to accept, another chance at love. In her hesitation, she’s drawn to Marianne, who rages constantly about her ex-husband’s weight issues, slobbiness, and inattentiveness. Enough said: Albert, Eva learns, is Marianne’s ex. Though neither lead performance owes much to their small screen work, it must be said that at this juncture, Eva indulges in some classic Elaine behavior: Rather than spill the beans and upend both relationships, and to protect herself from heartache, Eva keeps this news to herself, and keeps prodding Marianne for more information on her unsuspecting lover.
Enough Said is “a Likely Story Production,” and under Holofcener’s sensitive, sensible direction, it is a likely story, only somewhat improbable. (It wouldn’t work in the fishbowl of NY, where the three characters would have greater chance of meeting.) Louis-Dreyfus has had three TV successes pretty much in a row, exposure that would use up some performers over time. Her greatest asset as an actress, however, is a quicksilver way of expressing herself that doesn’t give away everything she’s thinking, and that works well for Eva, who has closed herself off from pain yet still pines for affection. She establishes a nice rapport with Marianne, played by Holofcener’s discovery, and muse, Keener. In other films Keener’s brittleness can grate; Holofcener sharpens that brusqueness to an exquisite edge, and gives her warmer qualities as well. You see exactly why Albert is unsuitable for her, and, in Gandolfini’s portrayal, why he might be more of a catch for Eva.
In his last leading role, the actor is such a sweetheart here it breaks your heart. There are fat jokes at Albert’s expense, and I reckon he laughed the loudest at them. He wasn’t the likeliest choice for the part, but such is life, his casting says–Mr. Right doesn’t always come gift-wrapped. Albert is aware of his faults (in a film full of astutely judged choices behind the camera, the production designer, Keith Cunningham, has constructed the perfect, merely functional home for the character) but is comfortable in his own skin, and maintains his equilibrium in the face of his own mid-life issues. You get the attraction, and he and Louis-Dreyfus click, and harmonize. It’s a cliche to say this, and Holofcener wouldn’t–still, you see yourself, or facets of yourself, in these people, and it’s a good feeling.
Enough Said opened last Wednesday, which would have been Gandolfini’s 52nd birthday. Think of it as a parting gift, for him, as he got to extend his unique talent in an unexpected genre, and for us.