25 October 2013
I find the films of Nicole Holofcener riveting and grating in a way I have a hard time articulating. Think of Lovely and Amazing (2001), about that family of women so crippled by their distorted views of their own bodies; or Friends with Money (2006), in which the radical differences in income between old friends function as a social poison; or her most recent Please Give (2010), which examined death and belongings. This director plays her characters’ foibles for laughs for a while, then keeps pressing on that sore spot until it bruises. I kind of love it, even when it hurts.
Enough Said is easily her funniest and most sweetly romantic film. But beware for the part when it hurts.
Aside from keeping her bickering friends Sarah (Toni Collette) and Will (Ben Falcone) company — and serving as a kind of moderator between them — Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) seems on the surface to be just fine. Her massage therapy business, which requires her to lug her collapsible massage bed from her car into clients’ homes, is doing pretty well. Even if it’s a job full of ordinary annoyances, Eva’s sense of humor functions as a nice deflection away from any real feelings she might have about it.
On the surface, anyway. Holofcener wants you to keep watching, to pay attention to Eva — because there’s more going on than it might appear. Especially on the topic of her daughter going away to college at the end of the summer, as we come to see.
It comes as a surprise, then, when we realize in the film’s second act that she is starving for someone new to help her feel more secure. Not necessarily a man, but she agrees to go out with the wry Albert (James Gandolfini) nevertheless. She’s more enthusiastic about her glamorous new client Marianne (Catherine Keener), a poet for chrissakes who owns the most beautifully well-appointed home Eva has ever seen.
In the meantime, she also receives surprising comfort from her daughter Ellen’s best friend Chloe (Tavi Gevinson). Whereas Ellen is starting to pull away — that inevitable period of the summer when college-bound kids start to imagine their new lives away from their parents — Chloe pulls close to Eva, almost replacing her own mother.
Not that Eva’s dates with Albert are inconsequential. Despite all the obvious reasons not to like him — he’s a really big guy, not her type at all — he genuinely makes her laugh, disarming her of the usual defenses. She grows visibly more relaxed around him, and although she’s clearly surprised to find herself liking him, those dates with him just work.
One of the things I find so beautifully romantic about this film is how Eva laughs with Albert. You can see the relief there, together with the fact that she’s disarmed by how well they get along.
But because she’s a little bit discombobulated, she can’t help but doubt how much she likes him. No matter how she feels when she’s with him, we can feel her holding herself back. Is this the fate of middle-aged divorcés, that experience triumphs over hope?
In a beautiful moment, Eva and Albert lie in bed together, ready to go to sleep contentedly, and Eva says, “I’m so tired of being funny.”
Maybe she lets herself fall so much under the spell of Marianne the poet because starting a new friendship with a woman lacks the scariness of dating a man. Marianne is just so impressive, with her mane of beautiful hair and her serious nature and the way random people come up to her and tell her how much her poetry means to them.
She’s also not funny at all. When they become confidants and learn about one another’s relationship issues, it feels so intimate. Marianne seems to want to push directly to something real. Eva just doesn’t realize yet how much it might hurt when she mimics her.
Holofcener writes funny dialogue without it seeming fake or knee-slapping high-larious; it’s the kind of humor that feels real. In fact, besides the beautiful acting job by Gandolfini as Albert, I’d say that the very best thing about this film is its dialogue and what it conveys about relationships between people.
Seeing this film makes me want to scream: this is why we need films by women writer-directors, because they often have a gift for conveying how dialogue between women is the very connective tissue of life.
So you’ll forgive me when I also say I didn’t love Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
It kills me to say it. When Seinfeld went off the air, I mourned for the loss of Louis-Dreyfus’ Elaine Benes. I still haven’t seen Veep, her HBO series, but I already know I’m going to like it.
Not that she channels Elaine here — there is no “get out!” — but in this more subtle, big-screen comedy/romance, the actress chews the scenery too much. Or, to be more precise, I liked her a great deal but she always threw her face into one more comic contortion than I could stand. I wanted her as an actress to stop it — to stop being a great small-screen comedian and let her normal face carry the scene. Perhaps this is simply a matter of taste — perhaps other viewers will find her utterly adorable — but it was almost always a shade or two too cartoonish for me, and I’m sorry (and surprised) that Holofcener didn’t edit it out.
So I was glad to have other characters to appreciate — not least was Collette’s actual Australian accent and her awful treatment of her husband and housekeeper. Collette has found a nice way of moving back and forth between TV and film work, clearly mastering the micro-expressions required for the latter while also keeping up the chops it takes to succeed in broader comedy.
In the end, this is truly an achievement for Holofcener as well as for Gandolfini. Even if he hadn’t died so recently and so much too early in life, it would be hard to watch the film without marveling at how delicately he embodies this other role far beyond the mob boss world in which we know him best. Here he’s self-conscious, almost gallant, in his appreciation for Eva, and his determination to maintain his own self-respect. The film may offer us characters whose defenses block them from moving forward in life. But it also allows them to glimpse what hope might look like, and to offer them the possibility that they can drop their defenses, their experience, and open up to something else.
24 August 2010
The movies are no place for angry women. And I’m not just speaking of characters onscreen; female writers and directors can’t be angry, either. We’re very clear on this: men can get angry and get even, but women can’t behave in any way that might stop us from thinking they’re sexy — and dang, girls, anger is a real buzzkill. Now and then one of them slips through in disguise, though. I’m thinking here about Nicole Holofcener’s “Friends With Money” (2006) and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (1996), a great BBC adaptation of the Anne Brontë novel. Earlier this summer I overdosed on 19th-c. novels, but it’s hard to stay away when it comes to the Brontës, especially if one has watched this great YouTube video 23 times:
The Brontës were pissed off, and “Tenant” — which tells the story of a young mother who’s escaping her abusive husband by hiding in a remote Yorkshire village — might be the angriest of all their novels. The producers couldn’t have found a better lead than Tara Fitzgerald, whose fierce face and husky voice (and those severe 1850s up-dos) epitomized the character of Helen Graham. Her husband wasn’t just a philandering, drunken, abusive beast who despises her; he also tried to raise their son in his image. Her disillusionment with him makes her ever more willing to express her strong opinions when she’s chit-chatting with her clueless new neighbors, who find her child-rearing practices alarming:
Mrs. Markham: “He’s a boy, my dear. You don’t want to spoil his spirit — you’ll make a mere Miss Nancy of him.”
Rev. Millward: “True virtue, my dear lady, consists in a conscious resistance to temptation, not ignorance of it.”
Gilbert Markham: “Teach him to fight, Mrs. Graham, not run away. If you want him to walk honestly through the world you mustn’t try to clear all the stones from his path.”
Helen Graham: “I shall lead him by the hand till he has the strength to go alone. I cannot trust that he will be that one man in a thousand and have that strength and virtue as a birthright.”
Gilbert, teasing her: “You do not think very highly of us, then.”
Helen, growing exercised: “I know nothing about you. I speak of those I do know.”
Gilbert: “Is it not better to arm your hero than to weaken him with too much care?”
Helen, angrily: “Would you say the same of a girl? Must her virtue be tested in battle?”
Rev. Millward, pedantically: “I should say not. A woman’s virtue is her modesty; a man’s, his strength of will.”
Gilbert, more seriously: “I would wish a woman’s virtue to be shielded from temptation.”
Helen, furiously: “Why? You would have us encourage our sons to prove all things by their own experience, while our daughters remain in ignorance until it is too late?”
Gilbert, confused: “Too late?”
Helen, with finality: “I tell you, Mr. Markham, if I thought my son would grow up to be what you call a man of the world, I would rather that he died tomorrow.”
Not knowing Helen’s true situation — that her own ignorance led her into an impetuous marriage to a self-indulgent, selfish man — her neighbors first disapprove of her forthrightness, then gossip that she’s having an affair with her landlord.
So how did Anne Brontë sneak this one by her readers (and the BBC by its viewers)? By hiding the tale in the Trojan Horse of a romance. And damn, if you’re going to create a Trojan Horse, get the actor Toby Stephens to play the infatuated Gilbert Markham. He’s the son of Maggie Smith, eminently watchable as an actor, and so ridiculously pretty as to look almost cruel but for the auburn whiskers and freckles (and yes, he played Jane Eyre’s Rochester a few years ago). Lesson: if you’re angry and want to make a point about women’s subjection, it’ll go down easier if you create a hot, sensitive guy who’ll serve as our heroine’s reward when she comes out the other end of her miserable marriage.
Okay, that was the 19th century; what about the 21st? Sure, rape-and-revenge movies keep popping up (like Jennifer Lopez’s “Enough” of 2002), but I want to talk about a different kind of female anger. The question that’s rattled around my brain since seeing Holofcener’s “Friends With Money” — which I think of as a perverse retelling of “Sex and the City” — is why Jane (Frances McDormand) could direct her rage in the most petty ways at everyone around her, while the far more oppressed Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) couldn’t express it at all. Unlike their 19th-c. ancestors, these women don’t suffer from all-powerful husbands and fathers — in fact, they’re not entirely sure what they’re suffering from. Jane, a crazily wealthy clothing designer, gets mad at everything but none of it really matters, like when someone steals her parking place. She doesn’t stop to think why she feels so angry, but the most vivid symptom of this rage is that she stops washing her hair — making one of those Holofcener moments onscreen that remains on your frontal lobe for weeks afterward. In the evening she returns home to her husband and goes through the motions. Is the writer-director Holofcener trying to tell us that women can’t deal with their own anger? If so, why doesn’t she show us that women’s anger isn’t always directed at the mundane?
In contrast, Olivia has lots of reasons to be angry, but she opts for passivity. She quit her awful teaching job a while ago and now suffers the indignities of cleaning other people’s homes. As if that weren’t bad enough, she’s the only one of the four friends who isn’t married, leading the others to set her up with truly awful blind dates — like Mike (Scott Caan), a personal trainer, who not only dresses her up in a French maid’s outfit during one of her work days to spice up the sex they have in other people’s beds, but convinces her to share her income with him (because he “helped”). Her passivity is punctuated by the tiniest of rebellions — amassing dozens of samples of face cream from cosmetics counters, smoking a joint at night, and dialing the number of the married man who abruptly dumped her years ago. Why doesn’t Holofcener let Olivia express rage? Is this contrast of the two characters intended to show us the range of vague dissatisfactions in women’s lives? Or is it because Jennifer Aniston is such a totem, an actor who vacillates between the lachrymose and rom-coms, never tackling a more interesting range of complex emotion?
I wish I could say that Holofcener was even angrier than the Brontës when she made this film, because at times you sense it. But she, too, ultimately tries to tidy up the story by stifling their real problems inside the Trojan Horse of a tacked-on resolution at the end. Jane finally articulates her sense of futility and washes her hair, and Olivia goes on a pity date with an overweight, penny-pinching, unattractive client only to find him refreshingly kind, sweet … and rich! The weak, strange concluding scenes in the film — so eager to reassure us that the future will be better than the past we’ve witnessed — make for a modern twist on the Brontës’ use of romance to sugar-coat their messages.
What Holofcener has really put her finger on is a new Problem That Has No Name. But because she can’t name it, her slapdash resolution can’t work; Anne Brontë had the great benefit of being able to name her problem. Now that we proclaim women to be equal to men, feminism to be dead, and all our female characters to be mild-mannered, what happens to women’s anger? The four women in “Friends With Money” see their anger misdirected, turned into an strange kind of comedy, and diluted with the need for an ending to the story. I guess that Problem will just continue on undiagnosed, quietly eating away at women who don’t feel they have a good reason to be angry.