Roving thoughts and provocations

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Nicole Holofcener’s Beautiful Imperfections

Fox Searchlight Pictures
James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said

Nicole Holofcener’s new film, Enough Said, opens with a shot of its heroine, Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), wrestling a bulky, “portable” massage table out of the trunk of her car. In the scenes that follow, we rapidly become acquainted with the challenges of Eva’s life as a masseuse: the intimate contact with a body one might not choose to know quite so intimately, the necessity of enduring the nonstop, narcissistic chatter of a client who might just as well be talking to herself. At various points throughout the movie, we watch Eva lug the heavy table up a long flight of stairs to the home of a young man who stands at the top of the steps and watches her struggle without any awareness of the fact that it might be thoughtful, or simply polite, to offer to help.

Funny and romantic on the surface, tough-minded and often sharply satiric underneath, Holofcener’s comedies remind us, as few Hollywood films do, that people work for a living; they support themselves and their families, they pay their rent and their bills. They have more or less money than their friends, labor at glamorous or demeaning jobs, live in grander or more modest dwellings—and these differences in salary and status are significant, especially to those at the lower end of the spectrum.

In Friends With Money (2006), Jennifer Anniston plays a woman who is barely getting by, a former teacher reduced to cleaning houses, while her close friends live in luxury, writing television scripts, designing clothes, collecting the proceeds from a trust fund, renovating their homes, and attending charity benefit dinners. In the brilliant (and very dark) Please Give (2010)—which takes aim at heartless New York real-estate envy and a culture in which a mother can best express her maternal love by buying her daughter absurdly expensive designer jeans—the most sympathetic character, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), is a technician at a mammography center, and the opening credits appear over a montage of women’s breasts being positioned for the X-ray machine.

After watching Holofcener’s work, you may find yourself thinking about how frequently characters in movies seem to have been assigned their jobs at random, merely in order to give them something to do. Who can remember what the women in Bridesmaids do when they’re not preparing for the wedding? And though we’re told that the Ben Stiller character in Meet the Fokkers is a nurse, it seems to be mainly for the purpose of getting a laugh and inspiring the scorn of his prospective father-in-law. In a Holofcener film, a character’s job is what she does, and, whether she likes it or not, whether or not she chooses to define herself by how she is employed, it is a major—and a defining—aspect of her identity. In Walking and Talking (1996), Anne Heche is a therapist in training; in Lovely & Amazing (2001), the Catherine Keener character goes to work at a one-hour photo shop.

Lionsgate
Jake Gyllenhaal and Catherine Keener in Lovely & Amazing (2001)

The fact that they have credible (if not necessarily gratifying) jobs is by no means the only way in which Holofcener’s men and women seem more like people we know, or might know, than do most of the one-dimensional figures we have grown accustomed to seeing on screen. She’s not afraid to let her characters be at once flawed and appealing, strong and weak, damaged and healthy, generous and self-centered; even the most clear-sighted must cope with disabling blind spots. They seem like human beings, and if they behave heroically, as they often do, theirs is the sort of heroism that enables an ordinary person to get through an ordinary day without needing to defuse a ticking bomb or save their families from a spectacular, special-effects apocalypse.

Because so many large and small elements in Enough Said strike us as being so plausible—the well-drawn characters, the cars they drive (Eva drives some sort of low-end sedan), their furniture and clothing (one can tell how much their outfits cost), Eva’s loving and nuanced relationship with her daughter (Tracey Fairaway), who is about to leave for college, the reprehensible manner in which Eva’s otherwise sympathetic friends (Toni Colette and Ben Falcone) discuss whether or not to fire their maid—we’re willing to accept the central coincidence on which the plot hinges. Eva finds herself falling in love with a man named Albert (James Gandolfini)—also divorced, also the father of a daughter about to leave home for college—who turns out to be the ex-husband of Eva’s new massage client, Marianne (Catherine Keener). A poet so famous that adoring fans recognize her when she is out hiking, the stylish and beautiful Marianne is Eva’s idea of perfection.

Flattered that Marianne values her company, Eva continues the friendship even after she realizes that the ex-husband about whom Marianne is so unreservedly and gleefully nasty is none other than Albert. Indeed, Eva presses Marianne for more information about Albert’s failings, in part because it allows Eva to view him from two perspectives at once, and because Marianne’s complaints seem to contain an implicit warning about a future that may lie in store for Eva, whose own first marriage failed. Alone with Albert, Eva gazes at him with the adoring eyes of the newly in love, besotted by his charm, his sweetness, by the surprise of discovering that an overweight, middle-aged man could be so sexy, and by the irresistible allure of the fact that they appear to share the same sense of humor. But gradually she begins to see what Marianne saw: a fat, sloppy “loser” with the repellent habit of swirling a corn chip in his guacamole in order to separate the avocado from the onion. It’s as if Eva is having the rare experience of enjoying the exultant beginning and suffering the unpleasant ending of a love affair—all at once.

The parts have been written with sufficient depth and wisdom that, under Holofcener’s skillful direction, the actors never seem to be movie stars impersonating people. Rather, they disappear into the vulnerable and self-doubting characters they play without a hint of the preening vanity that so often causes cinematic performances to seem forced and shallow. It’s fascinating to watch Louis-Dreyfus’s mobile face twist and contort itself into expressions of shame, chagrin, bemusement, and regret, just as it is at once instructive and moving to be reminded that the late James Gandolfini was not Tony Soprano but rather an immensely gifted actor who became famous for his portrayal of a Mafioso. Here he projects the uncertainty and the vitality of a guy with a big heart and a sharp mind, a man whose sense of pride and personal dignity is undiminished by his pained awareness that he really needs to tidy up his house and lose some weight.

The extent to which we come to believe in—and care about—these people can be gauged by the intensity of our discomfort during an excruciating scene in which Eva drinks too much wine at dinner with Albert and her friends, and begins to channel Marianne. She accuses Albert of overeating, offers to buy him a calorie book, informs the increasingly uneasy party that Albert is incapable of speaking in a whisper, and glares with hate at him when (sure enough) he swishes a chip in the guacamole to herd the onions off to one side.

We are aware, as Albert is not, of Eva’s friendship with Marianne. But the fact that we are in possession of knowledge unavailable to a character does not (as it often does, in the hands of a less accomplished artist) diminish our respect for that character and his intelligence. And when, in the car going home, Albert angrily asks why he feels as if he had been having dinner with his ex-wife, it doesn’t seem like the culmination of a tricky plot twist but instead like evidence of a talent that V.S. Pritchett identified and praised in the work of Turgenev: his ability “to convey how everyone is aware of everyone else as if they were in telepathic communication with one another’s passing thoughts.”

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that, after much grief and misunderstanding, the lovers ultimately come to realize that they can’t live without one another. It is what I suppose could be called a Hollywood ending, and those of us who have been watching a lot of premium-cable-channel TV (dramatic series in which things turn out to be much more catastrophically awful than anyone might have expected) may find themselves thinking, for a moment, that a less neat and cheerful conclusion might have been more lifelike, more real.

But only for a moment. Because, by the end of Enough Said, we desperately want Albert and Eva to be reunited. This feeling is a great deal like our desire to see the lovers marry in the last act of a Shakespeare comedy or in the final pages a Jane Austen novel: even the most jaded of us still want to believe that it is possible for flawed and imperfect humans to love one another—and to be happy. Give us something better and deeper than what we’ve come to expect from Hollywood, and, like the audience with which I watched the film, we’ll by gladdened, even moved to tears, by a Hollywood ending.

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