Like her debut feature, Walking and Talking (1996), writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s sophomore effort is a carefully observed slice of life, lightly comic, thinly plotted and surprisingly engaging. Holofcener has a knack for capturing the small sufferings of relatively normal people and the indirect dialogue of everyday neurotics, and it’s this low-keyed verisimilitude that keeps her characters from becoming too terrible or too cute.
Lovely & Amazing centers on a family of women who, in varying ways, have serious issues of self-esteem — or at least self-image. The mother, Jane (Brenda Blethyn), has been abandoned by her husband; having reached a certain age, she is convinced that liposuction is the panacea that will revive her dormant love life. Her daughter Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) is an attractive young actress who is convinced that she’s not getting the roles that she should because she lacks sex appeal, obsessing particularly on what she imagines to be her flabby upper arms. Her other daughter Michelle (Catherine Keener) specializes in making tiny objets d’art that are so ugly they’re like little acts of passive aggression; when people refuse to buy them, it just confirms her view that the world is full of uncomprehending dimwits. And third daughter Annie (Raven Goodwin), an adopted black 8-year-old, while actually seeming the most well-adjusted of the brood, insists on having her hair straightened despite Jane’s protests. Acting discontented seems to be her way of assimilating herself into the family.
This is the kind of movie where the dramatic shifts are small and manageable, and the end is not that far away from the beginning. Michelle’s husband (Clark Gregg) is having an affair. Worse, he keeps managing to step on the miniature artworks she leaves around the house. So she’s a little too responsive to the flirtations of 17-year-old Jordan (Toby Maguire lookalike Jake Gyllenhaal), while Elizabeth’s insecurities drive her into the arms of the obnoxiously narcissistic actor Kevin McCabe (Dermot Mulroney).
But these are not large upheavals, and one could justly say that the movie doesn’t go anywhere in particular. Instead of progressing, it shows you a group of people, then draws you in closer and closer. This is the way they are, and who would be so steely as not to empathize?
Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].