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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

Film Review Enough Said

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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Living outside of New York, LA or Chicago means I haven’t had the chance to see a lot of this year’s critics’ picks for best film, like Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, Mike Leigh’s Another Year, and Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Even given those gaps, however, I want to make an argument for Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone as the year’s best film and as the right film for the award during a hard year of financial crisis and jobless recovery.

I could have chosen a film that exemplified the movies’ capacity to tell great stories that take us outside ourselves to that place of pleasure and wonder. Winter’s Bone might not have been so feel-good, but it was just as great a tale as Toy Story 3, True Grit, The Kids Are All Right, or The King’s Speech.  It made a better and more unpredictable thriller than Black Swan or A Prophet, and much, much better than The Ghost Writer, Shutter Island, and Inception.

In my mind, its real battle is with David Fincher’s The Social Network, a battle it will surely lose. The Social Network benefits from a timely story, massive ticket sales, an all-star directing/writing/production team, and — let’s face it — the focus on dudes and those epic battles involving testosterone and enormous sums of money that make voters for the Academy cream their pants. In contrast, Winter’s Bone has a little-known female director and co-writer, an unknown female lead who doesn’t prettify herself, and an all-poverty setting in the Missouri Ozarks where meth dealing and squirrel-eating are ways of life. The film appeared in theaters all the way back in July rather than late this fall. In short: no matter how much it might be the better film, or at least just as good as The Social Network, Winter’s Bone doesn’t have a chance.

But here’s why we should vote for it: because it tells one of the real stories of 2010: of poor people clinging on by their fingernails. It doesn’t have lines like “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” (And here I’m thinking about how much I objected last March to the fact that Sandra Bullock beat out Gabourey Sidibe for best actress — a choice that reveals our determination to feel good at the movies.) The story it tells — of a teenaged girl trying to keep her family together with a roof over their heads — doesn’t distract us from our own problems, sure, but that’s why the film’s terrific storytelling and perfect cast are so crucial. The fact that she succeeds in the end makes it even more appealing for our troubled times than the deeply ambivalent conclusion of The Social Network.

I have other reasons for pushing the film. In the wake of Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Director win at the Academy Awards for The Hurt Locker, 2010 turned out to be a comparatively great year for female directors — with Nicole Holofcener, Lisa Cholodenko, Coppola, and Granik releasing top-notch films. But unlike last year, there’s little grassroots movement to push female-directed films into the top level of competition for an Oscar, no matter how superior their films might be. For me, the battle isn’t won until women are nominated more often, and when women directors get nominated for films that have women in them. (Just like it was great in 1981 to get the nation’s first female Supreme Court justice with Sandra Day O’Connor, but even better when Ruth Bader Ginsberg brought a feminist consciousness to the Court in 1993, a choice that truly benefited other women.)

  • Best film:  Winter’s Bone
  • Best director:  Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone
  • Best female actor:  Kim Hye-ja for Mother (Korea, dir. Bong Joon-ho)
  • Best male actor:  Colin Firth for The King’s Speech
  • Best female supporting actor:  Dale Dickey for Winter’s Bone
  • Best male supporting actor:  Matt Damon for True Grit

I have more to say about what a great year it was for interesting female parts and terrific female acting — my choices for best actress and supporting actress were really hard to narrow down, whereas Firth simply has no competition for best actor. But that’ll wait till another time. In the meantime I’m going to keep arguing for Winter’s Bone, and I hope you do too.

The fifteen-year-old Abby (Sarah Steele) is at what is called that awkward stage, but watching her in “Please Give” underscores the inadequacies of the euphemism.  Her acne is so bad that “it looks like it’s eating my face;” she spends part of one dinner with a pair of panties on her head.  She cannot — cannot! — find a pair of jeans that don’t make her look like a sausage.  Her mother, Kate (Catherine Keener) is not just woefully incapable of understanding, but preoccupied with her own demons.  So Abby determines to fix her acne by having a facial at one of those ubiquitous New York day spas, believably called Skinology.  The spa technician, who also happens to be the granddaughter of the bitter old woman who lives next door, begins to work away on her, removing zits from her forehead as the girl squirms and flinches under her probing fingers.  “This is a deep one,” the technician warns her, and the audience begins to squirm too.  Talk about cringe humor.

The writer-director Nicole Holofcener has a knack for creating funny, excruciating moments like this onscreen that achieve something beyond the literal contours of the story.  No one who has seen “Lovely and Amazing” (2001) can forget that primal scene in which the neurotic, unhappy actress (Emily Mortimer), asks Dermot Mulroney to “be honest” in critiquing her body; she stands before him naked, skinny, awkward, hopeful.  “Please Give” is preoccupied with concerns exemplified by the pimple-squeezing scene:  just as places like Skinology feed off the deluded hopes of those with disposable incomes, Abby’s mother and father feed off dead people:  they buy mid-20th century furniture from the middle-aged children of the recently-deceased, people eager to jettison the awful stuff their parents sat on all those years.  It is precisely their furniture store’s profitability that has produced Kate’s profound, aimless sense of guilt.  But lacking any real outlet for it, she mostly atones by pressing sums of money on the homeless people outside their apartment.  Framing the boundaries of the story are questions of self-worth, the specters of death and selfishness, the possibility of joy, and our responsibility to others.  Like so many great French films, this one ricochets between these matters without offering simplistic messages or easy resolutions, leaving you to meditate on what you begin to see as profound matters.

The film is nearly stolen by the unapologetically self-centered Andra (Ann Guilbert), who at 90-something still lives as if everyone shares her pre-war ethos.  When she opens her birthday present, one of those old-lady pink embroidered sateen nightgowns, she refuses to wear it — or express thanks — because it’s “too nice.”  In a moment of one-upsmanship with another grandmother, she brags that people were often jealous of her because she was so smart, trumpeting that “people thought I was a schoolteacher.”  Almost immediately thereafter, she pronounces that her granddaughter’s (Rebecca Hall) new boyfriend is very handsome, but too short.  (This was such a vivid reminder of my own grandmother’s ugly manner of conversation that I found myself wondering whether everyone knows such a woman, or if I was the only person in the audience who found this dead-on.)  Embarrassing, stingy, imperious: she poses nothing but problems for her plain-faced, unhappy granddaughter as well as Kate and Alex next door, who have purchased her apartment and are waiting for her to die before they punch through the wall and create a luxurious en-suite master bedroom.  How should they — and we — feel about her?  Is Andra a mirror for the unhappy teenaged Abby?  A dose of reality for the guilt-ridden Kate?  A cross to bear for her granddaughter?

Because Holofcener’s films invariably feature prominent female characters they have often been characterized as “women’s films”; critics occasionally congratulate themselves for proclaiming that she “delves deeper than ‘chick flicks,'” as if she treads the same ground as “Sex and the City 2” (which, hello, was written and directed by a man).  For me, critics’ need to mark this distinction — “not just for girls!” — illuminates one of the problems with women in American film today.  It’s true that she punctuates her films with set-piece scenes that will hit deep nerves in female viewers, like Abby and Kate having one of those horrible mother-daughter fights as they shop for jeans — of course it’s while they shop for jeans.  But I maintain that “Please Give” is fundamentally concerned with profound issues that can’t be tidily dismissed as gender-specific, and if it had been directed by Bergman, Rohmer, or Woody Allen, no one would suggest otherwise.  In fact, I think it’s only due to Holofcener’s deep-seated directorial modesty that anyone feels the need to proclaim this “not just” a chick flick.  Because she is not willing to swagger her gifts — like so many women who, in Clay Shirky’s terms, refuse to behave as “arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks,” “self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so” — apparently critics feel the need to question whether her films should be relegated to the Lifetime Channel.

It seems apt that I’m also reading Doris Lessing’s Diary of a Good Neighbour right now, a riveting tale likewise concerned with selfishness, moneyed privilege, and caregiving.  As in “Please Give,” so many of the novel’s most emotionally fraught scenes occur in the claustrophobic spaces of apartments littered with the material signifiers of our selves.  The film and the book pair perfectly, with characters spewing awful statements at one another, interspersed with raw moments in which they try to offer one another something more true and generous.  Both ask, does our guilt cancel out our attempts at selflessness?  Are there costs in our efforts to create beautiful lives for ourselves — have we become unwilling to see human ugliness and comprehend death?

But Holofcener also wants us to laugh at ourselves and the innate ridiculousness of the Skinologies, our searches for good jeans, our battles with our mothers, and those moments in vintage stores when one says things like, “This is so bad it’s almost good. How much is it?”