Why aren’t more people talking about the fact that Nicole Holofcener is one of American film’s most interesting writer-directors? Is it the infrequency of her big-screen output? (Just five features in 17 years.) Is it that her dexterity with crafting naturalistic yet witty dialogue appears effortless? Do her examinations of people at a certain income level make it too easy to slough off her work as rarefied and precious? Is it, even in this day and age, that she’s a woman?
Whatever the reason, “Enough Said” confirms her gifts for creating complex characters who can be both lovable and irritating, and for capturing those tiny moments and pivots in conversation that can illuminate, embarrass or capture the exact second when two people fall in love.
For the time being, of course, the film will be mostly known for providing a great posthumous performance by James Gandolfini; his work here will certainly stand among his best, but he’s part of a very talented ensemble.
See photos: James Gandolfini’s Most Memorable Roles
Divorced masseuse Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) won’t be shipping daughter Ellen (Tracey Fairaway) off to college for several months, but she’s already prematurely feeling the pangs of separation anxiety. One night at a party, Eva meets two people who will profoundly impact her life: poet Marianne (Holofcener regular Catherine Keener), who becomes Eva’s client, and Albert (James Gandolfini) who, despite a bristly first encounter with Eva, later tracks down her phone number.
Both Albert and Eva are gun-shy about getting back into the dating scene — she shakes his hand at the end of their first night together, not feeling ready for a kiss — but they click quickly and grow close over the course of just a few dates. (Albert is also about to ship his only daughter away to school in the fall.) Meanwhile, Eva’s also striking up a friendship with Marianne, who constantly tells stories about her awful ex-husband and his myriad faults.
It’s not long before Eva realizes that Marianne’s terrible ex is none other than Albert, and it becomes increasingly impossible for Eva not to look at him through Marianne’s jaundiced eyes. Other directors might play out the situation as wacky farce; Holofcener makes it clear Eva can’t resist hearing about all of Albert’s worst qualities because she’s in that early, delicate stage of a relationship where she can either take the plunge or cut her losses.
On top of that, it’s clear that Eva fears walking away from her new friendship with Marianne, whose life seems far more glamorous and well-curated than Eva’s; even when Eva is clearly angling for more intel on Albert, she’s also investing in getting to know Marianne, and jumping through whatever hoops are necessary to keep both her lover and her new pal in the dark about the situation.
Holofcener puts us inside the heads of these characters with a minimum of writerly fuss. In one scene, for example, Ellen crawls into Eva’s bed on a Sunday morning to snuggle. Eva revels in the bonding moment, but can’t go for more than about 30 seconds without grilling her daughter about what she ate the previous day, sending Ellen running back to her room. That snapshot of parental dynamics tells us everything we need to know with just a few lines of dialogue.
Another gift of Holofcener’s is her bi-coastal-ness; she’s a New Yorker (one who totally nails her tales of Manhattan, like “Please Give” and “Walking and Talking”), but she gets the Los Angeles mood just right without ever being condescending or cartoonish. As she did in “Friends with Money” and “Lovely & Amazing,” Holofcener can tell an L.A. story with the confidence of a native.
Even coming off a streak of TV successes like “Seinfeld” and “Veep” (and “Watching Ellie,” which apparently only I was watching), Louis-Dreyfus’s work here feels like a revelation. She’s a master of squirm-inducing comedy, but rarely has she gotten to play a character with such a variety of tones.
She’s not afraid to let Eva become unsympathetic: Armed with Marianne’s revelations, Eva lobs a series of increasingly cruel digs at Albert during an awkward dinner party with her best friends Sarah (Toni Collette) and Will (Ben Falcone) — but Louis-Dreyfus never allows the character to become so awful that we don’t root for her happiness.
As for Gandolfini, the day will come when watching this performance won’t be any different than watching the work of Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn or any other legendary performer who is no longer with us. Right now, with his sudden death still so new, I found myself swinging back and forth between reveling in the character and feeling wistful about the actor’s passing.
As legacies go, however, this is a great one, bringing to the fore his gifts for comedy and his ability to find the appealing facets of an unlovable character. Albert is guarded and sloppy and outspoken, but he’s also warm and affectionate, and Gandolfini and Holofcener, in a low-key way, make every part of him ring true.
The performances are great up and down the line: Keener’s poet, in the hands of a lesser actor, could easily have become an unbearable caricature, and kudos to casting director Jeanne McCarthy for filling even the smaller roles with terrific character actors like Kathleen Rose Perkins (“Episodes”), Toby Huss, Michaela Watkins and Amy Landecker (“A Serious Man”).
“Enough Said” is the good kind of fall movie — intelligent, literate and entertaining, deserving of praise without ever nakedly angling for awards. Prizes would be nice, but the best result would be for the powers that be to give Holofcener more money more often to make more films.