REVIEW: Life as Low-Level Misery, with Laughs to Spare; Holofcener's "Lovely & Amazing"
by Erica Abeel
(indieWIRE/06.25.02) -- It's got all the earmarks of the standard chick flick, indie-style: a mosaic of quirky open-ended scenes about the tyranny of female body image and the fraught ties between mothers and daughters, themes we've surely visited before. But the big talent at work here lifts "Lovely & Amazing" beyond genre and makes it the most surprising and assured film of the season. A quantum leap from Nicole Holofcener's 1996 cult fave "Walking and Talking," too often a tract on gal pals, "Lovely" is freer-ranging and funnier (its dark humor reminiscent of Todd Solondz, though less Guignol). The seeming improvisation is urged forward by an unobtrusive design. And Holofcener has devised a fresh cinematic language to capture the comedy of her characters' low-level misery.
Jane (Brenda Blethyn) is a wealthy California matriarch about to subject herself to liposuction. Her three daughters live in varying degrees of distress. Michelle (Catherine Keener) is mired in a stale marriage to a "personal sound engineer" (he installs stereos), and creates miniature topiary chairs that find no takers. Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) is an addled actress who collects stray dogs when stressed by career reversals or her boyfriend's indifference. Getting a jump on adolescent rebellion, eight-year-old Annie (Raven Goodwin), Jane's adopted black daughter, is trying to determine her place in a white world.
The family obsession -- a kind of riff on a 19th-century hereditary taint -- is a fixation on body image and attractiveness. Trivial stuff, but Holofcener's treatment transcends the subject. Though literally nauseated by the prospect, Jane goes under the knife - "to feel better about herself," as Michelle explains to Annie. Wafer-thin Elizabeth frets over arm flab and her hotness quotient after flunking a "chemistry audition" to play opposite movie star Kevin (Dermot Mulroney). The neglected Michelle can't leave the house without panning for male attention. Even adopted Annie has caught the family bug: husky-size and a compulsive eater, she's on her own confused quest for loveliness, which mainly consists of trying to look white.
Jane develops freak complications from the lipo, and is forced to remain in the hospital, under the care of smarmy Dr. Crane (Michael Nouri). In a running joke, Jane believes he's always flirting with her, when plainly he equates slack female flesh with the ka-ching of the cash register. During Jane's absence, Michelle gets involved with Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), her teen-aged boss at One Hour Photo (reprising Keener's fling with the video store geek in "Walking"). In some of the film's comic peaks, Elizabeth is seduced by the narcissistic, clueless Kevin. And Annie -- when not acting out her fears about her mother by playing dead in the pool -- gets her hair un-napped because afros remind her of clowns.
Beneath the looseygoosey manner (even the opening titles slide onscreen crab-wise and tentative, and the folksy score sounds like an afterthought) the film is shapely and tight, bookended by two linked scenes. It opens when Jane takes Annie to her black babysitter, who eventually dumps Annie; and closes when Annie lovingly plumps pillows on Jane's bed, preparing to welcome home -- the point is quietly made -- her white, yet true parent. Scenes nail a character with a few wicked strokes and an unexpected payoff. While trying to peddle her tchotchkes to a pair of bitchy boutique-owners, Michelle encounters a high school classmate, now a hotshot pediatrician. "You always were so creative," chirps the classmate -- a zinger that confirms Michelle's sense of failure. Characters can hang themselves in a single phrase. "Just tell him to fuck off" is Michelle's refrain, revealing her manner of dealing with the world.
Witty cross-cutting pumps up the smallish story. And the camera commutes back and forth from Michelle's cradle-robbing date with Jordan, to Elizabeth with movie star Kevin, who woos her with such lines as, "promise me you'll never get a boob job." Holofcener consistently downplays, almost to a fault: even a hint that Michelle's husband is schtupping her best friend gets barely a blip on the screen. But how refreshing that in a setup frontloaded with schmaltz-potential, the film resists sentimentality, yet is unafraid of sentiment
Holofcener's matchless humor, her strongest suit, spans from rib-tickling to hilarious. In one comic collision, Annie obsesses about Afros and clowns -- just as Kevin moves in on Elizabeth, murmuring about his "boner" during the audition. The older sisters' misguided romances culminate in two riotous set pieces. In a sequence guaranteed to silence all coughers, Elizabeth stands naked before Kevin and asks him to critique her bod. Initially resistant, Kevin really gets into it ("In a perfect world you'd have a rounder ass," etc.), and there's little funnier than the suspicion flickering over his features that somehow this is going to turn around and bite him, though he can't think why. Later, Michelle's assignation with underage Jordan is grotesquely and hilariously intercepted by his mother. The Holofcener touch: as mom orders Jordan to go to his room, Michelle notices she's got the same bathrobe.
We laugh at this filmmaker's discomfiting take on relationships because it's all too recognizable. Couples talk past each other. (Michelle to husband: "A man at the dry cleaner's flirted with me." Husband: "You spend too much money on dry-cleaning.") Instead of the great blowout, it's the wearing down by attrition that destroys. A kind of bard of irritability, Holofcener sculpts her scenes to expose these minute rifts. In "Walking," Anne Heche made a mountain out of Todd Field's neglected mole; in "Lovely," a session of backscratching erupts into a swords-drawn battle. These couples don't fight fair or clean or even with words that make sense.
To convey her rocky world, the filmmaker has assembled a peerless cast. Brits Blethyn and Mortimer deliver a persuasive American idiom. Mortimer exudes a salacious innocence in her scenes with Dermot Mulroney, who in a brilliant comic turn conveys the male as missing link. Jake Gyllenhaal's teen lover is both uncomfortably young and sexually plausible; resisting any impulse to cuteness, Raven Goodwin can uncork a line like "my mother was a crackhead" with a haunting lack of affect. And at the center is Indie Queen Keener, with her hostile smile and perfect timing; an unstable compound of maddening, pathetic, and altogether winning -- not too different, perhaps, from people known to you and me. And if there's an underlying message, it's family solidarity uber alles, even if it means telling a neurotic mess she's lovely and amazing