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.
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.