SEE CORRECTION APPENDED
"Lovely & Amazing" is all but indescribable, and what a good thing that is. Like the best of personal, independent cinema--terms that too often provide cover for a multitude of sins--it is both marvelously observed and completely individual. There is no film like this film, and that is something you don't hear every day.
"Lovely & Amazing" is a product of the distinctive sensibility of writer-director Nicole Holofcener, whose debut film, "Walking and Talking," provided a similar experience. She has an exact eye and ear for the way things are, a rueful sensitivity to how quietly ridiculous our 21st century existence can be. Sort of savage but in a quiet, unassuming way, it is a funny and charming film about some painful situations.
"Lovely & Amazing" is set in today's Los Angeles, and, like Doug Liman's "Swingers," it's so accurate about how people attempt meaningful emotional connections in an uncaring world of self-involvement, obtuseness and free-floating insecurity that it ought to be put in a time capsule. But while "Swingers" focused on men, "Lovely & Amazing" introduces us to a family of women doing the best they can to get along. The group's matriarch, Jane Marks (Brenda Blethyn), is concerned enough about doing good in the world to have adopted an 8-year-old African American girl named Annie (Raven Goodwin), whose birth mother was a crack addict.
But Jane is also someone who can spend an inordinate amount of time and money covering her bed with so many designer pillows that there's no room to sleep. Her main preoccupation these days is impending liposuction, a cosmetic procedure she seems to agree to at least in part because she has a crush on the handsome Dr. Crane (Michael Nouri).
Jane has a pair of birth daughters, self-absorbed in different ways; between the two of them, they seem to have cornered the market on neuroses. Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) is introduced first, an actress so insecure about her body that it's fitting we meet her in agonies of awkwardness posing for a picture in Vogue in a very revealing designer dress. "I don't feel quite like myself," she says, to which the photographer replies, "Who does?"
Elizabeth, it turns out, is not getting much help in the support department. Her agent's idea of personal service is giving her secondhand presents (she calls it "re-gifting"), and her boyfriend, Paul (James LeGros), is a nature journalist with the personality of a bump on a log. It's not a surprise to discover that Elizabeth is such an aggressive rescuer of stray dogs her place resembles an animal shelter.
Given all this, one of the surprises of "Lovely & Amazing" is that Elizabeth is considerably more empathetic than her sister Michelle (a letter-perfect Catherine Keener), a former homecoming queen with an exaggerated sense of her own importance.
Keener, who starred in Holofcener's "Walking and Talking," has often played hard-edged individuals, but they're hardly ever as exactly observed as Michelle, a provocative character who mainlines so much aggrieved entitlement she has only a dim sense of how hollow and futile her life has become.
Introduced trying to sell her homemade miniature chairs to a crafts store, Michelle is shocked to find a former junior high classmate is now a pediatrician. When the woman reminds her that, after all, "we are 36," Michelle's response--"we're not 36 36"--is telling.
Although the mother of a little girl, Michelle in her own mind won't grow up, won't deal with her abysmal marriage to an uncaring personal sound engineer ("he buys stereos for rich people"), won't--or can't--differentiate between taking charge of a situation and being hostile and bossy. Even the relationship she has with young Annie, who shows signs of developing the same insecurities as her sisters, plays like sibling rivalry despite their difference in age and situation.
Each woman faces difficulties during "Lovely & Amazing," from Michelle's experimenting with the working world to Elizabeth's need to participate in a "chemistry read" with a major movie star (Dermot Mulroney) to answer the burning question "Are you hot together?" An immediate change in anyone's outlook is not this film's style, but the potential for future corrections is there in a gentle, wistful way.
With a cast that includes some of the top actors working in independent film, "Lovely & Amazing" involves us because it is so incisive, so bleakly amusing about how we go about our lives. Many of these characters are people we almost hate to love, but by illuminating their humanity, this film doesn't give us a choice.
MPAA rating: R for language and nudity. Times guidelines: a scene of full frontal nudity.
'Lovely & Amazing'
Released by Lions Gate Films. Director Nicole Holofcener. Producers Anthony Bregman, Eric d'Arfeloff, Ted Hope. Executive producers Jason Kliot, Joana Vicente, Michael Kafka. Screenplay Nicole Holofcener. Cinematographer Harlan Bosmajiian. Editor Rob Frazen. Costumes Vanessa Vogel. Music Craig Richey. Production design Devorah Herbert. Art director Missy Parker. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
In selected theaters.