Saturday, October 5, 2013

No Humans Need Apply: Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said

James Gandolfini & Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said

If I believed that the characters in Nicole Holofcener’s comedies – Lovely and Amazing, Please Give, Friends with Money and the new Enough Said – could exist in the real world, then most of them, and especially her heroines, would be high on the list of people I’d cross the street to avoid. They’re glib and whiny, and they exude an unpleasant chill. When Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the masseuse who’s at the center of Enough Said, gushes over the Santa Monica house where her new client, Marianne (Catherine Keener), lives, her face freezes in a phony smile. Yet we’re not supposed to think that Eva is hiding her true feelings in order to secure Marianne’s business; we’re supposed to think she’s sincere. And later when she tries to get her college-bound daughter Ellen (Tracey Fairaway) to cuddle with her – it’s her way of making amends for hurting Ellen’s feelings – the offer feels similarly unconvincing, as if she were putting on a show for Ellen’s benefit. Eva comes across like those women in high comedies who don’t actually touch each other’s cheeks when they kiss, but that’s not the way we’re meant to read her. I don’t think that either the actress or the writer-director has any idea how unappealing she is.

Eva is a divorcée who hasn't had a relationship in a long time – perhaps not since she and her husband (Toby Huss) broke up. At a party she attends with her best friend Sarah (Toni Collette) and Sarah’s husband Will (Ben Falcone), she meets Albert (James Gandolfini, in one of his final performances), who also has a daughter about to enter college, and afterwards he calls to invite her on a date, even though they make jokes about not being attracted to anyone in the vicinity. That blanket claim is supposed to be humorously awkward, I guess, or a sign of their mutual insecurity as divorced people trying to renegotiate the dating world in their middle age. But when Eva says it – Albert merely seems to be following suit in a self-protective sort of way – it comes across as rude enough to deflect any man’s romantic interest. She meets Marianne at the same party; when Eva asks her what she does and Marianne answers, “I'm a poet,” Eva assumes she’s being high-flown and metaphorical (“Oh, you’re a dreamer” is her rejoinder), though it isn't clear why she can’t imagine meeting a professional poet at an elegant L.A. party; it’s not as though Marianne claimed to be a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Then when Marianne assures her she was being literal, Eva quips, “You’re a poet and now I know it!” This would seem to be a good moment for Marianne to look around for the bar, but instead she takes Eva’s business card, hires her, and after a few sessions she tells Eva she wants to be not just professional acquaintances but friends, and Eva responds with her usual artificial enthusiasm, and off they go.

Catherine Keener in Enough Said
Keener gives one of those brittle, unpleasant performances that made her so hard to warm up to in her early movies – especially the ones Nicole Holofcener directed – but Marianne’s behavior in this movie makes a little more sense than Eva’s. She takes the opportunity of this new-found friendship to bitch about her ex: his personal habits, his unprepossessing physical attributes, even the fact that she didn't like him in bed. Eventually Eva figures out that the man she loves to rant about is Albert, whose relationship with Eva has progressed. But instead of calling a halt to Marianne’s complaints, or making the decision to let their friendship fade, she encourages her, demanding more detail about his offenses and starting to see Albert through her eyes. When she brings him to dinner at Sarah and Will’s, she gets on his back about his eating and his inability to keep his voice down; she embarrasses him and her hosts – though Sarah’s attack on her housekeeper in the kitchen in front of her guests is almost equally embarrassing. Who are these people? Sarah and Will say the kinds of things to each other when they’re out in company that would signal that they’re about two steps away from their own divorce – that is, if you could buy them as a married couple in the first place. The only characters I didn't want to throw rotten fruit at were Albert, whom Gandolfini imbues with some warmth – and whose heartbreak when he finds out the truth is one of the few emotionally convincing emotions in the picture – and the three teenagers: Ellen, Albert’s daughter Tess (Eve Hewson), and Ellen’s best friend Chloe (Tavi Gevinson), who feels closer to Eva than she does to her own mother.

director Nicole Holofcener
One could imagine Eva in a Woody Allen farce where the joke is that she can’t resist doing something terrible and then buries herself deeper and deeper as she tries to work out how the hell to get herself out of it. But Enough Said isn't a farce; it’s supposed to be realism. When inevitably Albert and Tess, whom Eva has met, show up at Marianne’s one day when she’s visiting, the moment of revelation is played straight, so Eva’s attempt to lie her way out makes us dislike her even more. This woman is unreasonably stupid and insensitive. She’s so unconscious of her daughter’s discomfort with Chloe’s perpetual presence that she goes so far as to invite her to bunk in Ellen’s room while she’s away at college. When Chloe confides in her that she’s considering letting her boy friend take her virginity, Eva advises her to do it – and then she’s astonished when Chloe’s mother (Amy Landecker) resents her interference. You marvel that Ellen didn't move in with her father long ago.

Almost nothing in this movie feels remotely plausible, including the fact that when Albert invites Eva over for brunch for their second date, he answers the door in his pajamas, or the fact that Marianne doesn’t appear to have any other friends except Eva and, we learn in a baffling throwaway moment, Joni Mitchell. This isn't the kind of fake movie where everyone seems to be imitating the way people act in an SNL sketch, like Lake Bell’s In a World . . . , or where the characters’ hyped-up behavior suggests a Bizarro-planet version of reality, like David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook – two movies I bailed on in the middle because they made me feel as if I were going crazy. Enough Said is another kind of fake movie altogether, where we’re meant to recognize the characters. But I kept looking up at Julia Louis-Dreyfus scrunching up her face in every scene to signal bewilderment and sympathy and shame – take your choice – and all I could think of was that I've never met anyone remotely like this woman and I don’t want to.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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