Nicole Holofcener's sharp and delicate observations of relationships are the antithesis to that so-synthetic-it-causes-skin-rash stuff out of which most movies about women are spun. In those films-usually tagged with the condescending term "chick flick"-women fit into easy archetypes, and their ersatz conflicts with mothers, daughters, sisters and men are contrived, movie-conceit dillemas that rarely strike a raw or beautiful nerve. Judging from the many fans of these entertaining but inconsequential films, we are far more comfortable with female caricatures and simple reconciliations.
But "Lovely and Amazing," Holofcener's original tale of family bonds, sibling rivalry and self-image has the painful charm of life. Like Holofcener's 1996 film "Walking and Talking," a gently observed comedy about the effect of a woman's impending marriage on her relationship with her best friend, "Lovely and Amazing," is bittersweet and complex. It establishes Holofcener as one of the clearest voices among independent filmmakers, even if her film suffers a bit from somewhat pedestrian visuals.
"Lovely and Amazing" establishes "Walking and Talking" star Catherine Keener as a comedic actress of impeccable timing and intelligence. Keener's Michelle Marks is a former homecoming queen-turned-underachiever, whose acerbic wit masks her own insecurities and frustrations. Keener and Holofcener dare to give Michelle traits that would be anathema to most modern movie heroines. She's insensitive, even unlikable. Yet, Michelle still manages to win the audiences' sympathy and most of the laughs.
When we first meet Michelle, she's trying to sell her artsy but impractical tiny chairs to a tony gift shop. Aggressive but clearly insecure, Michelle jokes with the snooty boutique owner, "Don't you wish you were small enough to sit in them?" We quickly learn that stay-at-home mom Michelle, despite her dull marriage and her love for her young daughter, hasn't really grown up, and sports the defensiveness and self-absorption to prove it.
Her younger sister, Elizabeth, an actress, has her own self-esteem issues, exacerbated by a boyfriend who passively but cruelly critiques her body and appearance. It's no wonder Elizabeth is drawn to the self-centered but charming movie star Kevin (Dermot Mulroney) after a bizarre casting session for a role in his next film. A wry observer of modern life, Holofcener surrounds her characters with so many unnerving moments that it's no wonder they're neurotic. When Elizabeth asks Kevin, in one of the film's most searing and telling scenes, to evaluate her naked body, it's an uncomfortable and honest observation of a young actress on the fringes of Hollywood.
The women's mother, Jane (Brenda Blethyn), has enough of her own insecurities about age and looks that she's gone running for liposuction. While mom recovers, Michelle and Elizabeth are forced to help out with the 8-year-old African-American girl, Annie, whom do-gooder Jane has recently adopted. Annie (the marvelous Raven Goodwin), struggling with her own issues of self-image and identity, is the unlikely catalyst that unleashes full-family dysfunction leading to a resolution that's gratifying because it isn't pat.
"Lovely and Amazing" takes characters usually relegated to the sidelines (if they appear at all) and liberates them from stereotype. Nowhere is this more evident than with the character of Annie, the kind of imperfect--in body and spirit--girl-child on whom few writer/directors would spare even a frame of film. In Holofcener's capable hands, Annie emerges as this flawed family's glue, as "Lovely and Amazing" delivers a surprising, moving portrait of contemporary womanhood.
"Lovely and Amazing"
Directed by Nicole Holofcener; written by Nicole Holofcener; photographed by Harlan Bosmajian; edited by Robert Frazen; music by Craig Richey; production designed by Devorah Herbert; produced by Anthony Bregman, Ted Hope and Eric d'arbeloff. A Lions Gate Films release. Opens July 19. Running time: 1:31. MPAA rating: R (language and nudity).
Michelle Marks--Catherine Keener
Jane Marks--Brenda Blethyn
Elizabeth Marks--Emily Mortimer
Annie Marks--Raven Goodwin