There’s a certain strand of filmmaking that I like to think of as ‘low stakes cinema’ where nothing really bad happens or is likely to happen to any of the characters — no one’s actions are going to kill or seriously hurt anyone, and there might be a bit of embarrassment or hurt feelings, or even a relationship break-up at the very worst. Much of Nicole Holofcener’s cinema sort of fits neatly in there, and the lives she depicts are just a little more ragged around the edges than, say, Nancy Meyers’s (certainly their homes are less punishingly set designed). Both of these films deal with ensemble casts, groups of people defined by relationships, whether romantic or those of friendship, navigating through complications, without the kind of pat resolution you get with, say, sitcoms. In this way they fit somewhat into the same mould that younger ‘mumblecore’ filmmakers were doing at the same time, though her filmmaking seems closer to the kind of comfortable New York background of Noah Baumbach, something which traces its lineage back through Woody Allen. Between these two films below she made Please Give (2010, which I’ve seen and liked, though wasn’t able to rouse myself to write much about it) and Enough Said (2013), which is just lovely, and I think one of the last screen performances from James Gandolfini.
Everyone’s ever so slightly neurotic and has trouble living with themselves in Nicole Holofcener’s films (most recently in 2013’s Enough Said). I’d say they’re generally white and middle-class too, although here the matriarch Jane (Brenda Blethyn) has a young black adopted daughter Annie (Raven Goodwin). Anyway, if it’s a formula, it’s one that makes for enjoyable, watchable films, because Holofcener writes observant character studies of people who you imagine it might be difficult to live with, but not to watch on screen for 90 minutes. As ever, Catherine Keener is the film’s real star, here playing Michelle, a struggling artist who feels like she’s wasting her life, so takes a job at a photo booth with a tiny Jake Gyllenhaal. Meanwhile there’s her sister Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), an aspiring actress feeling fragile due to body image worries, no thanks to the superficial men she needs to court jobs from. It may not build to any big melodramatic climax, but for its brief running time it feels like it’s touching on feelings that are common and understandable and not always related in American comedies.
Director/Writer Nicole Holofcener; Cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian; Starring Catherine Keener, Brenda Blethyn, Emily Mortimer, Raven Goodwin, Jake Gyllenhaal; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Sunday 10 January 2016.
After my “Film Round-Up” posts of the last few months, I’m trying out another way to present shorter reviews of things I can’t bring myself to write up at greater length.
After a strong opening, this high school comedy about a washed-up drama teacher (Steve Coogan, playing American with middling effect) sort of peters out a bit. It’s a pity, because even if reminiscent of some of Rushmore‘s Max Fischer Players stagings, the film has the germs of a fine idea — that Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be improved upon and be inspiring to a new generation of students — but the film’s overall failure just reminds us how difficult comedy can be to get right. In the end, there are some good images that might suit an animated gif format (the “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” setpiece for example), but beyond that, probably best given a miss.
Director Andrew Fleming; Writers Fleming and Pam Brady; Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski; Starring Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Skylar Astin; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 2 June 2015.
Originally entitled Nailed and directed by David O. Russell, this troubled production began in 2008 and is only now getting a release, with Russell’s name removed from his directing and writing credits (in favour of “Stephen Greene”). If it remains remembered in future at all, it will almost certainly be for this story than anything actually in the film, though despite a healthy portfolio of negative critical reviews, it’s not actually all that awful. It’s disjointed certainly, with an uneven tone (slapstick is difficult to get right), and some of its jokes don’t land very well at all — there’s a scene of Gyllenhaal’s Congressman character Howard cringing through his fingers which could easily have been me at points. And yet Jessica Biel’s naive small-town girl Alice has a winning charm not unlike that of television’s Kimmy Schmidt. Alice gets a nail accidentally shot into her head but is uninsured and so needs a change in the law to allow her to have it removed, thus avoiding long-term damage. As a political satire, made at a time before President Obama brought in healthcare coverage, it does pretty well, giving a sense of the absurdity of the system, something you’d imagine the film’s writer might have experienced a little of as Al Gore’s daughter. It’s Catherine Keener’s conniving senior politician who is the film’s bad guy, though James Marsden’s schmuck-like local police officer Scott — engaged to Alice before taking it back, and overly fond of putting percentage chances on everything — comes close. I can’t in all honesty recommend Accidental Love wholeheartedly, but it certainly doesn’t deserve the beating it’s received from some quarters.
Director David O. Russell [as “Stephen Greene”]; Writers Russell [as “Stephen Greene”], Kristin Gore, Matthew Silverstein and Dave Jeser (based on the novel Sammy’s Hill by Gore); Cinematographer Max Malkin; Starring Jessica Biel, Jake Gyllenhaal, Catherine Keener, James Marsden, Tracy Morgan; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Showcase Cinemas Newham, London, Sunday 28 June 2015.
There are Hollywood films where I sometimes wonder if the economics of the thing are driven by the idea of just putting some currently-hot talents in front of the camera even when nothing else seems to have been thought out (the script, usually) and the hope that everything will come together when the camera starts rolling. It wouldn’t be surprising, because sometimes I’ve enjoyed a film perfectly well based on the pleasure of watching some charismatic stars do their thing. I’m pretty sure it’s the reason I liked Begin Again, for example, which I only went to because it filled a gap while I was waiting to do something else. It features a handful of actors I really enjoy watching, who generally have the sense of people who are winging it (not necessarily always a bad thing). A particular stand-out is Mark Ruffalo, who does his usual rumpled washed-up shambolic thing with all his customary aplomb. In this, he’s Dan, a music A&R man who’s just been fired by his company, and in a night of disconsolate drinking happens across Keira Knightley’s singer-songwriter Gretta in a bar. She’s just been pulled up on stage during an open mic night by her equally unsuccessful friend Steve (James Corden), but Ruffalo sees something in her. We get this scene at least three times, from three different perspectives, and we quickly learn that Gretta’s split up with her rock star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine, himself a lead singer in some kind of rock band). Dan, too, is estranged from his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), so this odd couple sort of help each other through their respective issues — I’d say it was another story about a damaged middle-aged male ego being restored by a spontaneous, impulsive young woman, but it’s not quite as cut-and-dried as all that. Nevertheless, as I’ve already hinted at above, these aspects of the story weren’t always convincing to me — certainly, Dan’s plan isn’t, the one to record an album with Gretta outdoors, as a sort of ode to New York — though we do get some nice details about the music industry along the way (with small roles for Mos Def and CeeLo Green). If I’d seen director Carney’s first film Once, I’d assume it was a retread of that with bigger names. Nevertheless, those actors do carry the movie a lot further than it sometimes deserves.
Director/Writer John Carney; Cinematographer Yaron Orbach; Starring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Monday 14 July 2014.
Nicole Holofcener makes movies about fairly unexceptional people in their middle-age just working things through in a slightly messy way, the kind of thing that’s apt to be overlooked, but her films — and this one in particular — have a warmth and generosity to them that’s more rewarding than a lot of other romantic comedies out there. It helps in this case that the late James Gandolfini is involved, as despite ostensibly playing against ‘type’, he is exactly the right kind of gregarious presence for this story, although most of the focus is on Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Eva, a woman who’s trying not to be in a relationship, but seems to just fall into one.
It’s not perfect by any means. There’s a rather too neat plot twist that ties in Eva’s work relationship as a masseuse to poet Marianne (Catherine Keener) with her burgeoning love interest in Gandolfini’s Albert, and the way that twist is developed feels a little bit too forced. Yet there’s still a lot that is wonderful and well-observed, little moments of characterisation that feel true to life. There’s comedy too, though this is a comedy primarily in its broad strokes and its feeling for its characters; maybe it would be fairer to say that within its comedic framework there’s a strong streak of melancholy.
A lot of the film’s success is due to the actors, and while the leads may be more familiar from television, they show a great aptitude for small gestures that show up so well on the big screen. There’s a bit of manipulativeness with the musical score, sure, and the parallel sub-plot of the leads’ respective daughters moving out of home towards college has some in-built corniness. However, I think the movement of Louis-Dreyfus’s eyebrows or Gandolfini’s watchful sideways glances hold a lot more power within the film’s context than any of the more obvious plot contrivances. Just seeing Gandolfini on screen provokes a fair bit of pathos, knowing that such an engaging screen presence is no longer around.
I fully admit I have little helpful to add to the critical commentary on this deft romantic comedy, but between its likeable lead players, it’s a welcome presence that’s both diverting and entertaining.
Director/Writer Nicole Holofcener; Cinematographer Xavier Pérez Grobet; Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Toni Collette, Catherine Keener; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Sunday 13 October 2013.