Discussions about women directors in Hollywood invariably bring up the name Nicole Holofcener. Despite her talent, over the nearly twenty years since 1996’s Walking and Talking she has made only four feature films (though she’s directed episodes of TV shows as diverse as Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, and Parks and Recreation). God bless Kathryn Bigelow, whose military themes and brilliantly directed action sequences can pull in a larger audience, but Holofcener’s currency is relationship, the hedging, conditional bond that passes for love. Her movies chronicle the (often romantic) dissatisfaction of a certain kind of educated, middle-class, urban woman, but they are also rich ensemble stories that allow small moments (of revelation, of kvetching) for many of her characters. She has a sharp ear for the rhythms of conversation, evident in her nuanced dialogue. Her quiet revolution is to write women characters who refuse to conform to stereotype, or even be very likable. Their neuroses aren’t charming or hysterical, they’re just real women struggling, and often failing, to understand who they are or what makes them happy.
Another throughline of sorts is Catherine Keener, who has appeared in all of Holofcener’s movies. That’s in part because she’s so good at playing the sharp honesty that Holofcener’s writing requires. The prickliest of her films is Lovely & Amazing, which adds race, adoption, and body image to Holofcener’s themes of class and money. I’ve always found her sour, sharp sense of humor very funny, but her new film Enough Said is a departure of sorts, more of a winning comedy with moments of drama. Keener has a supporting role as Marianne, a poet ensconced in a tasteful Los Angeles bungalow. But the lead role goes to Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays a divorced massage therapist named Eva. Eva unwittingly meets both Marianne and her ex-husband Albert (the late James Gandolfini, sniff sniff) at a party. Marianne becomes Eva’s client, and then her friend, while Eva simultaneously starts dating Albert. Even after Eva discovers the connection she can’t resist hearing Marianne detail Albert’s faults. These doubts by proxy seep into the new relationship and undermine the good will and leap of faith that love requires, exposing the difficulty Eva has believing in love after the failure of her marriage.
There are also subplots involving the daughter of Eva, and the daughter of Marianne and Albert, who are both about to leave for college on the East coast. This unavoidable loss is the one thing that unites the trio of parents, and lends the whole movie a sense of melancholy even in its funniest moments. As Eva’s daughter Ellen, Tracey Fairaway’s understated portrayal perfectly captures a teenager on the verge of leaving the nest. She shrugs off Eva’s attempts to mother her, but still becomes jealous when Eva hangs out with her drifting friend Chloe (a surprising bit of casting: fashionista and media whiz Tavi Gevinson). I was less interested in Eva’s married friend Sarah (Toni Collette), who argues with her husband and complains about her maid — this bit doesn’t add much to the story, and in the current economic climate seems tin-eared. As can be expected, the heart of the story belongs to the relationship between Eva and Albert.
Which brings me to Gandolfini. I happen to be watching the end of the last season of The Sopranos, and it was a weirdly schizophrenic shock to see him in the role of a sweet, doting boyfriend and dedicated father. But he embodies it as fully and convincingly as his more famous mafioso archetypes, evidence of his tremendous talent and range. Seeing him on screen deepens the inherent melancholy of Enough Said. A.O. Scott calls it a “small miracle of a movie,” and I think that’s apt. Hollywood is pretty hostile to intimate stories about middle-aged women coping with changing family dynamics, which is why it’s great that this movie is doing so well at the box office. For those that point to Gandolfini, I was the youngest person at my screening by about twenty years, and they hardly seemed like Sopranos fans. I’d like to think they are Holofcener fans.