Warning - Mild spoiler alert. I don't reveal plot points, but if you read this post, you'll be able to put it together. We've had an astonishingly good run of movies this summer, apart from the abysmal -- dare I say Pepto-Bysmal -- "Blue Jasmine."
Our latest was "Enough Said," a small, sweet romantic comedy from writer-director Nicole Holofcener that is a terrific star vehicle for Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose acting and energy I've always liked. It's also one of James Gandofini's last movies and what a nice note to go out on.
How rare is it to see a romantic comedy between two middle-aged adults (we'll skip over "Before Midnight," which is a different beast altogether and which I didn't love as much as "Before Sunset")? Although Gandolfini clearly breaks the typical leading-man mold, Louis-Dreyfus as the masseuse Eva is Hollywood-thin and Hollywood-pretty; when Eva complains about being flabby, my eyes rolled out of their sockets and fell into the popcorn. Still, she and Holofcener are not afraid to show the lines and wrinkles. I also thought it was great seeing a middle-class character living in a smallish home and wearing jeans and flip-flops the way most people I see in life do.
Why do I call it a "small" movie? The story's concerns stay within a rather tight orbit of family and friends, and the stakes at first seem small -- no one is going to lose their house because they can't land the deal, the Empire will not fall if the Nose-ring of Aggraddorr is not destroyed. But in the end, I was so swept up in the everyday concerns of love, friendship, family, and broken hearts that these characters' attempts to find happiness left an oh so pleasing aftereffect. The movie's pace is casual, the music understated, the costumes and settings unextravagant. It's a recognizable and comfortable world.
I'd even hedge my description of it as a "romantic comedy" as Holofcener strenuously steers the movie away from the standard genre tropes. They don't meet cute; Gandolfini's Albert actually asks for Eva's phone number -- like a grown-up would do! Their dialogue in the movie line and at a restaurant is not the sparkling cut-glass banter of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. Instead, their badinage is playful, gentle, funny, tentative -- clever, but in the way that intelligent people can be clever, not Hollywood-clever. And there are no stupid misunderstandings where one starts out not liking the other and then must be swayed to fall in love. These start out liking each other, but then doubts creep in; they're both divorced and the memory of old mistakes starts affecting the new relationship.
It's a movie about relationships -- wrecked ones, strong ones, parent/child, man/woman, older/younger, boss/employee, lovers, ex-lovers, friends. The movie is full of people needing a connection, or losing a connection, or needing to renegotiate a connection; it's a theme that is masterfully played out and subtly done.
But the movie can't escape its genre handcuffs in the way that Eva holds on to information she should clearly divulge yet clings to while stringing along both her boyfriend and her new friend and client, Marianne (Catherine Keener), a poet who lives a kind of beautiful life Eva envies.
The movie pretty much demands that Eva's deceptions be revealed in the most humiliating way possible and they are. Eva weasels and squirms and tries to evade her responsibility for the situation, but the script doesn't let her off the hook. And while the deception plot seems just like the kind of slapstick setup for Elaine on the old "Seinfeld" show, Louis-Dreyfus doesn't go for laughs. Eva deserves to be put on the spot; she knows she's hurt people she's come to care about and who care about her. It's a devastating moment because life will not be the same afterward for anyone.
I liked how Holofcener did not give Eva an easy out. When she goes to Albert's house to apologize, there's no shouting, no banging on tables, no big scenes -- just honesty and sadness played out in an ordinary kitchen. When Albert's daughter, who has been an obnoxious snob for most of her scenes, gives Eva a gift of unearned and undeserved kindness, there should not be a dry eye in the house. It's one of the most real, and also one of the most touching, moments I've seen in a movie in a long while. (Always be skeptical of a reviewer who really loves something, kids; it means his love for the material is overlooking flaws. But in this case, I care not.)
One of my few complaints about the story is that Keener's character is left high and dry by Eva's betrayal. As I think back on it, it's pretty clear that Eva was awed by the poet and is flattered to be considered her only friend (really? her only friend?) but the liking is only one way, from the poet to Eva. Keener does a good job of conveying her liking for Eva, and she looks devastated at the revelation of Eva's betrayal. But we don't see Eva attempt to apologize or try to set the matter straight with her. It's as if Holofcener is saying that a loving relationship with a man is more important than an affectionate friendship with a woman. That may be an artifact of the genre or it would have unbalanced the story of Albert and Eva, with whom we're more invested by the movie's end. It's one part of Eva's story that really bothered me afterward.
In compensation, though, there are many other lovely moments, one of which is Eva and her ex-husband saying goodbye to their daughter at the airport, with tears flowing from the women as they check her through security and then see the escalator take her away. Holofcener holds for a time on Eva and her ex-husband as they walk away, clinging to each other tight and reassuring each other -- such a beautifully done moment. Again, a real moment, with respect paid to the emotions these characters are feeling and not chopped short by a wisecrack or witty quip.
The ending is tentative, reassuring, and the right words are said. No big emotions, no big music, no big Hollywood-anything -- just two people sitting on a porch, trying to get back to each other. So yes, a small movie, and I loved it.
Although Gandolfini doesn't get the set pieces that Louis-Dreyfus does, his presence throughout is solid and grounded and it would be a lesser movie without him. He's a big teddy bear , with a rumbling voice and gentle manner, and enough steel to let Eva know that she's crossed the line. But even then, he treats her with respect.
Update: The reviews that I've scanned also like the movie, and use "bittersweet" to describe its tone, which is a word I wished I'd thought to use. This brief New Yorker review by David Denby says a lot more in a lot less space (I really should learn to write sometime). He also uses a word I should have used to describe Gandolfini's performance: "dignity."