Friday, September 27, 2013

Enough Said: Whimsical ode to second chances

Enough Said (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for profanity, sexual candor and partial nudity

By Derrick Bang

This is a sweet little dramedy: the gentle saga of two lonely middle-aged people attempting to establish a second act with each other. Despite taking full advantage of its upper-middle-class Los Angeles setting, Nicole Holofcener’s intimate, conversation-laden film easily could be a stage play, where I suspect it might have more success finding an audience.

Albert (James Gandolfini) really isn't ready for a new relationship; neither is Eva (Julia
Louis-Dreyfus). Somehow, though, not being ready together begins to work. Alas, an
unexpected complication is destined to interfere with their growing bond; the question
is whether they can survive the fallout.
Even during these calmer days of early autumn, with the bombastic summer behind us, films such as Enough Said struggle for viewers.

That’s a shame. Far too few movies explore the quiet isolation of late fortysomethings who worry that life has passed them by: that they’re no longer entitled to the happily-ever-after that once seemed an essential clause in the contract of adulthood. In that respect, Holofcener’s film is refreshing merely by its very existence; that it explores this subject with honesty and candor is a bonus.

Holofcener has based her artistic career on serio-comic examinations of modern American women in crisis, starting with 1996’s Walking and Talking, and continuing with Lovely & Amazing (2001), Friends with Money (2006) and Please Give (2010). She clearly has an artistic rapport with Catherine Keener, who starred in all four of those films, and also has a strong presence in this new one.

But Keener takes a supporting role this time; the central character, Eva, is played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a strong TV presence — most famously in Seinfeld, currently in Veep — whose big-screen career has been restricted mostly to voicing characters in animated features. That’s a shame, because her wry, self-deprecating shtick is an ideal defense mechanism for her character here.

(That said, a few of Louis-Dreyfus’ comebacks do sound too much like a stand-up routine; Holofcener could have reined her in just a little bit.)

Eva works as a professional masseuse and has adapted, if reluctantly, to life as a single mother. She remains on reasonably cordial terms with her ex, and has custody of their teenage daughter, Ellen (Tracey Fairaway). We meet Eva during the strenuous routine of an average day, as she schleps her unwieldy portable massage table from one client to the next, obviously deriving no joy from these regular encounters with often self-absorbed people.

But it’s a living, and Eva can take solace from regular contact with best friend Sarah (Toni Collette) and her husband, Will (Ben Falcone). And we sense that Eva has worked hard to derive comfort — if not satisfaction — from her workaday schedule. Unfortunately, that stability is about to be shattered, because Ellen is days away from leaving for college. Eva, her very soul wrapped up in her daughter’s constant companionship, is fraying visibly around the edges.

Ellen, anticipating the same separation anxiety, has withdrawn slightly in order to minimize her own pain; this naturally causes her mother to fret even more. The territory here is both familiar and unerringly accurate: Parents always foresee this moment, when their baby birds leave the nest, with a mixture of pride and dread. Louis-Dreyfus and Fairaway are excellent together, displaying both the ease and uncertainty of this mother/daughter dynamic.

But Eva remains a jumble of mixed emotions, her mounting agitation manifesting in nervous chatter and ill-advised attempts at humor. Hoping to distract her, Sarah and Will drag Eva to a party: a ploy that proves unexpectedly successful. Eva first garners a new client, establishing an immediate simpatico bond with Marianne (Keener), a successful poet.

A bit later, Eva meets Albert (James Gandolfini), equally ill at ease in this social setting. Their connection seems so tenuous that it almost doesn’t take; we’re not sure it’ll lead anywhere until the scene shifts to a subsequent first date, Albert embarrassed because even his reservations haven’t prevented an unexpected wait at this particular restaurant, before being seated.

The subsequent dinner is a masterpiece of awkward tension and groaningly awful attempts at conversation; we hope to sink through the floor, not wanting to eavesdrop on such a painful first date (which, of course, merely reinforces Holofcener’s skill at depicting such an encounter). But Eva and Albert also delight in their shared clumsiness: the beginnings of a bond.

The relationship settles; they begin to spend time together. Albert, it turns out, also suffers the angst of a single parent whose only child is about to enter college. But his divorce was anything but amicable, and their daughter, Tess (Eve Hewson), is an entitled, stuck-up snot (a curious detail that never goes anywhere).

Marianne, in turn, blossoms from mere client to grateful companion, just as charmed by Eva, as she is by this sophisticated new friend. Unlike most struggling writers, Marianne has made a lucrative career of her poetry, and has become famous enough to be stopped by admiring fans. Eva marvels at her entry into this artistic side of Southern California life, spending time with a woman who casually acknowledges knowing icons such as Joni Mitchell.

Right about this point, as Holofcener builds to the end of her first act, we wonder where this story will go. Certainly the characters are interesting, even provocative, but there’s a sense of some hidden shoe waiting to drop. And, indeed, that’s true ... and the arrival of this little hiccup sets the tone for the rest of the film. But you’ll not get that detail here; too much delight comes from its discovery (assuming nobody lets the cat out of the bag, before you see this film).

Meanwhile, we’re further occupied by sidebar relationships, most notably the unexpected bond that develops between Eva and Chloe (Tavi Gevinson), one of Ellen’s school friends. At first blush, Chloe appears to be the needy one, finding a comfortable warmth in Eva that she doesn’t get from her own mother. But as an increasingly irritated Ellen more accurately realizes, Eva seems to be nurturing a “substitute daughter” as a self-defense mechanism, a dynamic that Chloe is only too happy to accommodate.

On the other hand, the passive/aggressive dance between the overly fussy Sarah and her maid (Anjelah Johnson-Reyes) is simply strange: a bizarre interaction that seems inserted solely to create some artificial tension. Holofcener is similarly erratic about the way she depicts Sarah and her husband; at times, Collette and Falcone are prickly enough that we wonder about the stability of their relationship ... and yet this, too, sorta just drifts off.

Louis-Dreyfus hasn’t had a big-screen dramatic role since appearing in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry, back in 1997; it’s easy to see why he would have been drawn to her brand of angst, which feels right at home in his universe. Eva is similarly insecure here, although such anxieties invariably are buried beneath another of Louis-Dreyfus’ chirpy smiles.

Granted, at times Eva is too quick with a witty comeback — people in real life rarely execute such well-timed retorts — but, in fairness, we also see pain and vulnerability in Louis-Dreyfus’ expression. Eva may smile readily, but the mirth rarely rises to her eyes ... and when it does, usually in Albert’s company, we rejoice at the moment’s sincerity.

Gandolfini, playing so strongly against type, is a revelation. Albert is a huge teddy bear of a guy who, in a delightful twist, seems wholly unaware of the advantage his size and strength should bestow. He’s charming but self-conscious, quick to feel injured at a perceived slight ... which occurs fairly frequently, given Eva’s tendency toward defensive, slightly-too-critical jests.

At such moments — Albert’s wounded, gently chiding expression signifying betrayal — we want to just slap her. And hug him.

Seeing Gandolfini in such a calmly tender role, and doing it so well, merely reinforces the tragedy of his unexpected death, just a few months ago, at the age of 51. This isn’t his final film — that honor belongs to Animal Rescue, a Dennis Lehane-scripted crime drama more typical of Gandolfini’s usual oeuvre, scheduled for release next year — but it is, nonetheless, a delightful epitaph.

Enough Said displays both the virtues and weaknesses of Holofcener’s various films. In great part, the character interactions are engaging and well handled by accomplished actors who fit nicely into their roles. At the same time, Holofcener’s touch is uneven, her ability to weave a complete tapestry not quite as skilled as the care she takes with individual threads.

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