15 October 2013

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

People have biases and movie critics are people, and you can complete the syllogism from there. Which is my way of pre-apologising for the sin of being way the hell in the bag for writer-director Nicole Holofcener, and liking all of her movies probably more than they are actually worthy of being liked, but my God, there are so few movies about normal adults having normal adult thoughts and feelings, and so few of those are about simple things that happen in everyday life, in which there are life-shifting but not necessarily life-altering crises, and in which the adults onscreen behave with casual, unforced naturalism, instead of Oscar clip brow-beating or fussy, "look at me" realism. That describes every single Holofcener film, even and especially Enough Said, the latest in a string of gorgeously low-stakes comedies about people who feel profoundly normal despite being played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini, perhaps the two biggest stars Holofcener has ever worked with.

It is the latest in the intermittent but noble tradition of divorcee romcoms, centering upon Eva (Louis-Dreyfus), a Los Angeles masseuse preparing for the awful fact of her teen daughter moving out to attend college in a few months. The first major story beat finds her prickly married friends Sarah (Toni Collette) and Will (Ben Falcone) dragging her to one of those L.A. parties that nobody seems to enjoy whatsoever in the movies, where she meets two important people: one is the well-regarded poet Marianne (Catherine Keener), the other is a vaguely awkward, overweight divorced man named Albert (Gandolfini), with whom Eva strikes up a wildly forced but pleasant flirtation. They go out on a couple of dates and Eva starts to warm up to him quite a lot, and just when she's about to admit that she's gone right ahead and fallen in love, she puts two and two together: the horrible ex that Marianne (who has hired Eva for regular massages and to be her only friend) keeps bitching about, the unsophisticated fatty, is Albert himself.

Contrived? Fuck yeah. But romantic comedies are a contrived breed, and Enough Said has the tremendous benefit of making its contrivance the inciting point of the plot rather than a fake way of ginning up a third act conflict; by the time it actually matters that Albert and Marianna have their toxic past, we've already had plenty of opportunity to get used to the idea of it. It's easy to get used to it, too, given the uniformly high caliber of the performances by everyone - though I am pleased that Keener has a reasonably small role, given that as much as I love her in all things, she and Holofcener (the actress has been in every one of the director's features) have long since stopped pushing each other into new and challenging places. Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini are especially wonderful, as they'd have to be, given how completely the film relies on the foundation of their relationship to work as anything at all: their early flirtation, and particularly the eager/embarrassed tenor of the scene where they agree to their first kiss, rings truer than just about any other depiction of romantic and sexual desire between adults seen in any American movie in years and years that didn't have "Before" in its title. It's very possibly the best thing either actor has ever done, or at least the most comfortable and intimate, requiring no tics or heightened concepts to be absolutely compelling and uniquely personal, and the chemistry between them at all moments is just about the best you could ever hope for, genuinely sexy and playful.

The film isn't, ultimately, about the relationship between the two, but how Eva deals with it, and that's another reason that the contrivance works: it's used more as metaphor than as strict realism. The driving conflict is whether or not Eva will allow Marianne's clearly biased viewpoint to spoil things with Albert, but putting it that way puts the onus on Eva's gullibility, when the film and Louis-Dreyfus make it clear that it's actually about Eva's fear of change, and using the excuse of Marianne's caustic gossip to keep Albert at arm's length is simply a very literal embodiment of looking for the worst in one's partner as an excuse not to be completely intimate with them. There's a lot of showing-not-telling that the part requires, and Louis-Dreyfus has to do almost all of it herself, falling effortlessly into the low-key chatty register that Holofcener loves to keep her movies in. Anyone whose chief points of reference for the actress are the sassy and loud Elaine Benes on Seinfeld or the callous titular character in Veep - as has been the case for myself - has no inkling that she's capable of anything this warm and lived-in and delicate, a bouquet of different forms of ambivalent feeling that are all pitch-perfect in the moment.

Now, this is all so smallish and personable that it runs into the problem of feeling somewhat disposable; and once again, we found ourselves still waiting for Holofcener to do anything that's as insightful and perfect as Walking and Talking or Lovely & Amazing. In particular, this is the first film the director has made where I feel like she's letting absolutely everyone off the hook (even Marianne, given the graceful exit of not appearing onscreen after she's fucked everything up for everyone). Sure, Eva behaves in some awfully dubious ways and makes some clearly wrong choices, but even as she suffers for it, there's more palpable affection on the director's part than in something like Lovely & Amazing, certainly, which is absolutely delighted to hold its characters' feet to the fire. Maybe that's just what happens as you age, and "she's too in love with her warm, likable characters!" is really the opposite of a problem. The film is generous, forgiving, and understanding of what people do with their lives, and it never feels like it has to be fake in order to get there. It's a little film, but awfully wonderful at it.

8/10

2 comments:

Not Fenimore said...

...rings truer than just about any other depiction of romantic and sexual desire between adults seen in any American movie in years and years that didn't have "Before" in its title.

I dunno... the romantic leads in Land Before Time VII always left me a little underwhelmed. ;)

Jeremy said...

What I really liked about this one is that it's the WOMAN who screws up.

Rom-Com lore would tell you Only Men Are Bad at Relationships