In `Amazing,' family, plot lack direction

Too many lessons, not enough laughs

July 19, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Writer-director Nicole Holofcenere debuted with Walking and Talking, the 1996 female-bonding movie about what happens when one of two gal-pals decides to get married. The filmmaker's work pivoted on the "observational humor" Seinfeld thrived on, and on minimalist motifs Seinfeld had already done to death, like a date hearing an answering-machine message referring to him as "the ugly guy."

Based on that film and her new one, Lovely & Amazing, I think Holofcenere genuinely wants to make pictures that plug into an audience's need for intimate contemporary comedies. But she doesn't do enough to quench that thirst.

Although the new movie has a gag about "re-gifting" -- giving other people presents originally given to you -- that's straight out of a Seinfeld episode, I'm not sure I'd call it a work of observational humor. This story about a dysfunctional Los Angeles family made up of a mother going through liposuction (Brenda Blethyn), her two grown daughters (Catherine Keener and Emily Mortimer) and her adopted young daughter (Raven Goodwin), is more like observational pathos -- maybe even observational self-pity.

Many things link this quartet, few of them good. Blethyn's mother, a demon over-decorator, has passed down a bizarre creative gene to her oldest daughter, Keener, who tries to make some money selling all-too-precious miniature chairs, and to Mortimer, an actress. Both have cellar-level self-esteem.

Keener epitomizes the homecoming queen who, 18 years later, flails around for something decent to do with her life -- she's astonished that a girlhood classmate could be a successful pediatrician -- and can find nothing to talk about except the experience of natural childbirth (she has one daughter). Mortimer is so insecure about her body image that she asks a hot-shot actor (Dermot Mulroney) to offer a critique of her nude figure. Goodwin has a plight that goes beyond her youthful pudginess: African-American in an otherwise all-white family and caught in a weird sisterly rivalry with Keener, she acts up and acts out, whether disrupting her swimming lessons or getting her hair straightened.

Holofcener does have an eye for casting: Her performers for Walking and Talking included Anne Heche, Todd Field (who went on to direct In the Bedroom), Liev Schreiber (the inveterate scene-stealer, most recently in The Sum of All Fears), The West Wing's Allison Janney, and Keener. In Lovely & Amazing, Mortimer has some fearless and original moments, especially when she displays herself to Mulroney -- going beyond both hope and dread, she conveys a naked need to be certified as an attractive woman, or maybe just a woman, period.

But Keener provides the engine that drives this spluttering hour-and-a-half. She keeps an audience both aghast and amused. She reads certain social situations instantly and can't help blurting out the truth about them -- she refuses to be polite when shopkeepers gently turn down her "art." Even at her most unlikable, she's magnetic. You're fascinated by the way her heightened self-consciousness doesn't keep her from presenting herself abrasively or making dire mistakes, such as falling into an affair with the teen-age shift manager (Jake Gyllenhaal) of the one-hour photo shop where she finally gets a job.

Unfortunately, Holofcener tends to draw "life lessons." She ends up with a fuzzy group portrait of women coming to terms with their emotional legacy and re-establishing, however tentatively, familial solidarity. Even on this plot-less movie's own terms, she would have done better to jettison dead-weight male characters like Mortimer's nature-journalist boyfriend (James Le Gros) or Keener's perhaps justifiably burned-out husband (Clark Gregg).

Better yet, she might have gone all the way with Keener's alternately loathing and self-loathing character and, like Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, conjured something riotously familiar: a post-feminist loser's version of David's hilariously self-centered HBO show, Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Lovely & Amazing

Starring Catherine Keener, Brenda Blethyn, Emily Mortimer and Dermot Mulroney

Directed by Nicole Holofcenere

Rated R (language, nudity)

Time 91 minutes

Released by Lions Gate

Sun Score **

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