Nicole Holofcener's movies tend to focus on conflicted women, but the men sure don't have it any easier. With the tender-hearted "Enough Said," her first studio production and one of the late James Gandolfini's final screen credits, Holofcener returns to the terrain of her 1996 debut "Walking and Talking" with another awkward romance threatened by conflicting agendas and poor judgement. As much as "Enough Said" revolves around single mother and neurotic masseuse Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), it also foregrounds the impact of her romantic confusion on good-natured suitor Albert (Gandolfini), who doesn't realize that Eva has been treating his ex-wife Marianne (Catherine Keener) and secretly gleaning information from her about Albert's flaws. The cringe-worthy setup might provide sufficient fodder for an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," but Holofcener's unassuming script gives the situation a more credibly delicate balance of humor and sadness.
However, there's a secret weapon in the cast that forces "Enough Said" away from traditional romcom turf and into something special: While Holofcener and Louis-Dreyfus both deliver on expectations from their earlier work, it's Gandolfini -- the ultimate gentle giant whose underlying sweetness finally gets its due -- who truly blossoms in a performance that should have solidified perceptions of his talent post-"The Sopranos." Instead, it's a fitting coda to the rest of his career that peeks at unexplored possibilities.
"Enough Said" steadily lays out the pieces of its basic scenario with a light touch: Eva wastes her days in a seemingly endless cycle of massage appointments, rolling her eyes through one difficult client after another, while spending the rest of her time complaining about her life to her teenage daughter. At a party with her friends, she meets Albert and Marianne separately, gaining both new suitor and client without realizing the connection between the two. Once she does, a few dates and massage sessions in, it's a classic catch-22: Tell Albert about Marianne and compromise a promising new romance; tell Marianne about Albert and lose a client in desperate need of a friend.
The stakes of the conundrum are rooted in the sheer pathos generated by these lonely characters: Eva frantically pursues her own desire for happiness at the risk of bringing others down with her, while both Marianne and Albert develop close bonds with Eva that can only end in disaster. Keener is typically sullen and wise as Marianna, a successful poet who has cut herself off from the world, but the role mostly serves to set in motion the more dramatic issue involving Eva's burgeoning romance with Albert.
From the moment Gandolfini appears on screen, it's impossible not to pay close attention to his presence, particularly given his appearance in the role so close to his death. Gandolfini turned Tony Soprano into such an iconic character for a lot of reasons, but chief among them was his ability to hint at the softer side of an assertive criminal lurking beneath his tough exterior. But Albert demonstrates Gandolfini's range in its purest form by showing the exact opposite: He's a total softie on the outside who hides his personal demons in amicability. Rather than learning about his flaws organically, Eve tries to cheat the system by eavesdropping on Marianne's woes, a conniving act made especially heartbreaking because Albert seems so likable.
As Eva learns more about him behind his back, the new information has a direct impact on their chemistry. "Why do I feel like I spent the evening with my ex-wife?" he moans after a particularly disastrous dinner party in which a drunken Eva makes him the butt of her mean-spirited jokes. While Holofcener doesn't turn Eva into a one-note bully, "Enough Said" eloquently complicates romcom traditions by showing how its protagonist's quest for happiness has a destructive ripple effect that runs directly into Albert's disarming friendliness. Mid-life crises have been explored many times in the movies, but they're rarely this subtle in their humanity, as the principle characters face a situation both amusingly overcomplicated and glum: Holofcener's wry method of exploring what it means to get older but no less wiser about the rules of attraction.
Gandolfini makes the issue at hand especially potent because he comes across so unassumingly kind. That's a new one: Even as the gay hit man in "The Mexican" or his goofy lieutenant of "In the Loop," he's always had a rough edge. None of that comes through with the lovably dopey slob he plays here. Oscar pontification isn't my main game, but if there was ever an occasion for a studio to mount a posthumous acting campaign, Gandolfini deserves it -- far more than, say, the successful efforts to acknowledge Heath Ledger for his work in "The Dark Knight," when the award ostensibly functioned as a de facto lifetime achievement recognition. Gandolfini deserves an Oscar for "Enough Said" not because it's the culmination of everything that came before it but rather because it goes in a completely different direction. And his least characteristic achievement is also one of his best.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Fox Searchlight releases "Enough Said" nationwide on Wednesday. It should perform decently over the next few weeks although it faces difficult long-term prospects given the dense fall release calendar.