If you're hoping for the perfect family, don't hold your breath.
The kind of film words like "quirky" and "unconventional" were coined to describe, Lovely and Amazing offers a fresh look at women, their self-image, and relationships courtesy of an excellent cast and the perceptive subtlety of director Nicole Holofcener (TV's Sex and the City).
Facts of the Case
Jane Marks (Brenda Blethyn, Secrets and Lies, Pumpkin) is fiftyish, frenetic, and sufficiently flush with cash to spend $10,000 to have ten pounds of unsightly fat siphoned from her midsection by a plastic surgeon (Michael Nouri, Flashdance, 61*) on whom she has a colossal schoolgirl crush. Standing by as Jane goes under the vacuum are her three daughters, and are they ever a motley collection of feminine neurosis:
Eldest daughter Michelle (Catherine Keener, S1m0ne, Being John Malkovich), a self-loathing wannabe artist, whiles away her days manufacturing junky handicrafts she can't sell, mostly to avoid looking for real work. Michelle is mired in a loveless marriage to Bill (Clark Gregg, One Hour Photo, We Were Soldiers), who may or may not be committing adultery with her best friend, and whose frustration with his and Michelle's nonexistent sex life and Michelle's nonexistent income only compounds her bitterness and utter absence of self-esteem. At her wit's end, Michelle walks into a one-hour photo shop and is hired on the spot by the owner's nerdy teenage stepson, Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal, Donnie Darko, Bubble Boy), who immediately falls tuchus over teacup in puppy love with this woman who's old enough to be his mother.
Michelle's sister Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer, Scream 3, Notting Hill) is a budding film actress who's struggling to get better roles because she's not the stereotypical supermodel type. Her writer boyfriend Paul (James Le Gros, Big Shot: Confessions of a Campus Bookie) can't muster much sympathy for her plight, mostly because he thinks acting is a stupid profession. Elizabeth's agent isn't much help either—she can barely remember her client's name. But Elizabeth's fragile confidence gets a boost when a popular movie star named Kevin McCabe (Dermot Mulroney, About Schmidt) takes an interest in her when she auditions for his latest film.
The youngest Marks is Annie (Raven Goodwin in a memorable debut), an eight-year-old African-American girl Jane recently adopted. Annie, like the rest of her new family, has serious issues—to get attention, she likes to go swimming and pretend she's drowning. She also displays an alarming propensity for wandering off alone to the neighborhood McDonald's without telling anyone where she's going. The Markses have enlisted a "Big Sister" named Lorraine (Aunjanue Ellis, Undercover Brother) to spend time with Annie, because Jane thinks the little girl needs a relationship with another black woman to balance her white-bread new existence.
Lives of quiet desperation? That's the Marks women in a nutshell. Emphasis on "nut."
The moment the end credits for Lovely and Amazing began to roll, I found myself saying aloud to no one in particular, "What an odd little film." And I didn't mean it in a negative sense. It's just that writer/director Nicole Holofcener, who has toiled for the past several years on such television programs as Sex and the City and Gilmore Girls, accomplishes in this instance a number of tasks that seem, at first blush, to be nigh onto impossible. She builds a movie around four self-indulgent, off-putting (and frankly, boring) characters and manages to keep us interested in—even persuades to like and root for—them. She matter-of-factly navigates some emotionally tricky waters—including interracial adoption, female body image, and a relationship between a married adult woman and a teenaged boy—without resorting to sensationalism, preachiness, condescension, or mawkishness. And, wonder of wonders, Holofcener sustains a narrative without any discernible thread of a plot for 91 minutes without failing the wristwatch test.
Much of the key lies in the uniformly compelling performances by the actors Holofcener chose for this project, led by Catherine Keener and Emily Mortimer. Keener, who also starred in Holofcener's first feature, Walking and Talking, walks a delicate tightrope as the sarcastic and unmotivated eldest sister, Michelle. One of the greatest hurdles an actor can leap is selling a character apparently without redeeming virtues, and that's exactly what Keener is called upon to do here. Michelle, with her monotone voice, world-weary expression, and all-consuming self-pity, is a tough person to care about, but Keener imbues her with a frustrated intelligence and a sense of resigned wry humor that are almost endearing. Mortimer, likewise, gives the perpetually insecure Elizabeth earnestness and coquettish vitality, despite her constant whining.
The other standout in the cast is eight-year-old Raven Goodwin, one of those kids—like the preadolescent Christina Ricci—who seems like an ancient soul inhabiting a third-grader's body, an adult dwarf playing the role of a precocious child. Though clearly still learning the ropes of acting, young Ms. Goodwin possesses a natural directness and gravity that's refreshing. Brenda Blethyn also shines as the materfamilias who has passed her navel-gazing tendencies to her daughters.
As this is a story of women, told by a woman director and screenwriter, it's not surprising that the male characters—what few there are—are more or less enigmas. (Let's be honest—the majority of male writers and directors struggle to present female characters accurately too.) Most prominent is Kevin, the sloe-eyed, dull-witted actor played by Dermot Mulroney almost as a pastiche of Keanu Reeves. Mulroney makes the most of his limited screen minutes (he was on the set for all of three days) without making his Hollywood pretty boy too much of a caricature. I also liked Jake Gyllenhaal as the goofy kid with whom Michelle has an ill-advised affair.
With a cast like this, Holofcener has a multifaceted palette of emotions to work with, and she uses them artfully, taking the audience on a leisurely journey through the daily lives of this family with no particular plot resolution to be achieved. It's enough that the four Marks women share neuroses and foibles that are all too common among American women today, and that by holding them up for scrutiny we can see our own lives and those of the women we know and love. Body image, and its relationship to self-image, runs through the film with alarming starkness: waifish Elizabeth sees herself as fat (she thinks her upper arms are flabby, despite the fact that they consist of nothing but skin, a few molecules of sinew, and bone); dowdy Jane blows ten grand on liposuction to divest herself of a mere ten pounds of waistline, even though—as her daughters are quick to remind her—"no one sees you naked"; little Annie wants to tear off her dark skin and straighten her kinky hair because she wants to resemble her Caucasian adoptive family. It's hard to listen to these women and not want to rush out to the nearest newsstand and torch every copy of Vogue.
Too often in films, we see painful moments that are painful for the audience only because we feel embarrassed for the actors on screen. Lovely and Amazing presents a flawless series of moments that are genuinely painful because we are embarrassed for the characters, and have forgotten that they are being portrayed by actors. The first arrives at the very beginning of the film, when Elizabeth finds herself uncomfortable during a photo shoot in which she's wearing a transparent dress. Later, Michelle attempts to interest a pair of snobbish gift store operators in her ridiculous handmade trinkets, enduring the humiliation of their rejection in the presence of an old high school acquaintance who is now a successful pediatrician. The capper—a scene as cringe-inducing as fingernails on chalkboard—finds Elizabeth presenting her stark naked form for critical evaluation by narcissistic movie stud Kevin, after the two have just made love. Emily Mortimer conveys a torrent of subtle emotions with tiny variations of expression and body language, made all the more poignant when we consider that it's Mortimer's own actual body—imperfections, frailties, and all—that's being verbally dissected in graphic detail here. It's a stunning piece of acting by Mortimer, whose chemistry with Dermot Mulroney is palpable (even though the two had never met before filming the scene, they improvised much of their own dialogue).
Due to budgetary restrictions, Holofcener shot Lovely and Amazing on digital video rather than film. Though not the filmmaker's first choice of medium, the hyperrealism of video serves this material well. And, thanks to deft work by cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian (Spin the Bottle), the picture manages to maintain a clear, almost filmlike quality that doesn't constantly remind the audience we're watching video.
Although Lions Gate brands this release of Lovely and Amazing as an entry in its Signature Series, this is a routinely spartan affair, apart from the facsimile of director Holofcener's Jane Hancock incorporated into the cover art. (All together now: "Ooooh. Aaaah.") The visual presentation, a sharp anamorphic transfer, shows itself well within the limits of the digital video source material. As expected, the picture is free from the print defects inherent in film (scratches, dust, flyspecks), and suffers from the weaknesses inherent in video (lack of depth, muted color, inconsistent definition). On the whole, though, it's an attractive and adequate reproduction. The soundtrack is offered in Dolby Digital 5.1, though for a dialogue-driven movie devoid of spectacular effects, there's not much here to prove the pedigree. All the audio elements feel appropriately balanced, and both conversations and musical interludes are easily heard.
In lieu of a full-blown commentary—too bad, really, because I suspect Nicole Holofcener has a lot more to say about her film than what's served up here—or behind-the-scenes documentary, we get a collection of four brief interview segments totaling just over ten minutes, with Holofcener and stars Keener, Mortimer, and Mulroney chatting about the movie and their experiences on the set. Each of the participants was recorded separately. It's hard to imagine how Lions Gate might have been any chintzier about this package—there aren't even any captions to introduce the people onscreen. The sequences featuring the three actors are nicely photographed though rather dimly lit, particularly in the case of Mulroney. Conversely, the snippets with Holofcener appear badly overexposed. On the plus side, all four speakers are engaging and plainly proud of their collaboration, even if they aren't granted much time to discuss it.
The film's theatrical trailer is included for good measure.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Once an adoptive child myself, I was intrigued by Nicole Holofcener's portrayal of the relationship between the Marks family and their new arrival, Annie. Holofcener drew aspects from her own family experience—like Jane Marks, Holofcener's mother adopted an African-American youngster (in real life, a boy a couple of years older than Annie) after her natural children had become adults.
During the 1970s, American television went through a dreary liberal-guilt phase, featuring scads of adorable black kids adopted by well-to-do white families (Diff'rent Strokes, Webster). Holofcener deserves credit for not playing the situation of interracial adoption for either cheap laughs or maudlin hanky waving. She doesn't shy away from the knotty issues that face a child being raised in an environment where no one else looks like she does, but she doesn't cue the violins and bubble machine either.
A film deserving of its name. Call it a chick flick if you will, but Lovely and Amazing is a well-crafted, sensitive, slice-of-life drama that takes its time to develop its characters and doesn't overplay its hand. It deserves a spin by parties on both sides of the gender divide. Or are there more than two sides these days?
All parties are acquitted and are free to go. We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Four Interview Featurettes Featuring Writer/Director Nicole Holofcener and Cast Members: Getting It Going, Playing the Part, Making It Work, Enjoying Each Other
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