Film Reviews: Wednesday, July 18, 2002
Lovely & Amazing\r\nStarring Catherine Keener, Brenda Blethyn, Emily Mortimer, and Raven Goodwin. Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener. Rated R.
Top Marks

Nicole Holofcener’s family comedy, Lovely & Amazing, lives up to its title.


Lovely & Amazing is the second film written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, her first being the 1996 comedy Walking and Talking. The weakest aspect of Holofcener’s filmmaking may be her choice of titles. Seriously, how are you supposed to pick these titles out of a video store’s inventory? The plots of her movies are pretty ordinary in the retelling, too. Don’t be fooled, though. With only two films, she has proved herself an acute portrayer of female characters, and even better at detailing the relationships among them. Woody Allen used to do that fairly well, and other filmmakers — Whit Stillman (The Last Days of Disco), Andrew Fleming (Dick, The Craft), Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World) — have succeeded with that subject more recently. Holofcener, though, seems to have marked this out as her special territory.

Jane Marks (Brenda Blethyn) is a fussy, fiftyish woman who goes into the hospital for liposuction surgery. When she develops complications, her three daughters are forced to examine their unconventional family unit. Body-image issues seem to run in the family. Middle daughter Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) is a professional actress who’s already hyperconscious of how she looks even before she loses a regular role in a tv show because a producer doesn’t think she’s sexy. The youngest, 8-year-old Annie (Raven Goodwin), is sulky and self-conscious about being an African-American kid adopted by a white family. After an outing with a bunch of kids who share their parents’ skin color, she goes back home and says, without histrionics, “I want to tear my skin off.” She’s also overweight and eats when she’s stressed. At one point, she sends Elizabeth into hysterics by walking out of the house in the middle of the night to go to the nearest McDonald’s.

The oldest daughter, Michelle (Catherine Keener), isn’t obsessed with her looks, but she’s got lots more on her plate. She’s insensitive, hypercritical, hopelessly untalented as an artist, and given to making cutting remarks. When her mother decides to have cosmetic surgery, Michelle asks, “Why? No one sees you naked anyway.” In a bit of rough justice, Michelle’s husband Bill (Clark Gregg) is exactly the same way — when one of her friends praises her for going through natural childbirth, he responds flatly, “She’s phobic about medication.” He’s screwing other women, and she has taken to crawling into bed with her daughter at night. Her misery briefly gives way to an amused flirtation, however, when she takes a job at a photo developing place, and her 17-year-old boss (Jake Gyllenhaal) is attracted to her.

The movie starts out like a standard-issue comedy about neurotic urban women, so much so that the first 20 minutes or so might turn off an unprepared viewer. After that, though, the characters reveal new depths, and the movie breaks out of its conventional mold. Holofcener has directed a number of episodes of Sex and the City, and the show’s verbal wit seems to have rubbed off on her. The dialogue boasts any number of quotable lines. (Elizabeth on her own eating habits: “I never eat, ever. In fact, I’m dead.”) The story arcs refuse to conform to screenwriting formulas, obeying life’s messier, more episodic rhythms.

Holofcener’s two films draw heavily from her personal life, and both times she has made extensive use of Catherine Keener, who’s not only an awesomely talented actress, but is also roughly the same age as Holofcener and sort of resembles her. One of Keener’s specialties is getting us to care about unlikable characters, and she makes Michelle’s self-loathing the subtext of every scene.

The gratifyingly non-cute Goodwin gives us Annie’s pain, unleavened by an adult’s coping mechanisms. Meanwhile, Elizabeth, for all her maddening insecurities, emerges as the emotional center of the family and the film. She loves Annie despite not understanding her, and loves Michelle despite understanding her completely. Mortimer tends to excel with these bright roles, and her vulnerability makes her very touching here.

It’s too bad the men in this film don’t come off as well. Strange, too, because Walking and Talking’s eccentric male characters were just as interesting as its women. Michelle’s husband and Elizabeth’s nonsupportive boyfriend (James LeGros) are so unappealing that you don’t understand why the couples are together. The film improves when Elizabeth gets a new boyfriend who’s an actor (Dermot Mulroney), and that leads to a scene where she stands naked in front of him and asks for an honest appraisal of her body, and he’s confident — or stupid — enough to give her one. The scene is amazing, partly because it doesn’t end with her murdering him, but it could have easily been exploitative or contrived or both, and somehow it feels more or less credible instead.

Various movie critics have used this movie as a stick to beat Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. I’m not one to pile on, but the comparison is apt, and it sure makes the Hollywood movie look bad. Lovely & Amazing doesn’t have the star power or the publicity attendant to a major studio film, but it has funnier jokes, deeper insights into family dynamics, and an unconventional layout which renders it far more persuasive. Like Nicole Holofcener’s other film, this one is easy to overlook, but that just makes discovering it more joyous for us.

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