Directed by: Nicole Holofcener
Starring: Catherine Keener, Brenda Blethyn, Emily Mortimer, Jake Gyllenhaal
I can't help but pity the timing of Nicole Holofcener's Lovely and Amazing, arriving on the heels of such other populous character studies as Thirteen Conversations About One Thing and Full Frontal. It's easily as good as the former, better than the latter, and more quirkily honest than both. Unlike Thirteen Conversations, Lovely and Amazing is truly about the characters, instead of using them to make a point. In so doing, this film ends up having as much or more cogency than the other. Lovely and Amazing, while artfully cutting between its characters eschews the more fragmented, time-shifting effects of Thirteen Conversations. This truly is a full-blown character study. The four principals -- Michelle (Catherine Keener), her sister, Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), their adopted sister, Annie (Raven Goodwin), and their mother, Jane (Brenda Blethyn) -- are all suffering from obsession with image. Michelle can't accept the fact that she's 36, her homecoming queendom half a lifetime in the past, and so hides in delusions of being an artist -- primarily creating tiny, chi-chi toy chairs ("Don't you wish we were small enough to sit in them?"). The alternative would be to actually deal with her age, her failed marriage, and the unappealing fact that she's not as extraordinary as she'd like to think. Confronted with rejection, she lashes out, calling potential clients bitches, telling them what they're full of, and suggesting they perform physically impossible acts upon themselves. When she finally breaks down and takes a job, she quickly finds herself embroiled in an affair with her 17-year-old boss (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is an utter social disaster among his peers. What better partner could there be for someone stranded in high school glory? Yet, we know that Michelle's homecoming queen self would never have looked twice at this boy. Sister Elizabeth is a meagerly successful actress, consumed with her physical perfection or lack thereof. Taking up with a self-absorbed actor, she makes him catalogue the imperfections of her naked self and then points out defects he's missed. When, late in the film, an incident genuinely threatens her looks, it affects her far less than her qualms about flabby arms -- as if tangible disfigurement would provide a kind of perverse relief. The adopted Annie is an overweight, 8-year-old Afro-American determined to be as white as possible, though the only thing she seems to successfully emulate is her adopted mother's appetite. The mother, Jane, is, if anything, more extreme, enduring liposuction and its aftermath. The surgery carries a high price both in terms of physical complications and psychological ones, as she obsesses over the possibility that her doctor (Michael Nouri) might fall in love with her "new-and-improved" self. Fringe characters appear no less image concerned. Annie's Big Sister volunteer is disappointed that her charge isn't a poverty-stricken waif. It's not so much the act of being a Big Sister that matters as it is her conception of herself in the role. When the reality doesn't match that image, she finds it inadequate. What's most remarkable about the film is that it covers all this territory without ever once losing its sense of humor. And it does so through a simple expedient that all too many "problem" films lose sight of -- the characters are allowed to laugh and have a sense of humor about themselves, their foibles, and their situations. Beautifully acted, especially by Catherine Keener, who is quickly becoming the queen of indie films, Lovely and Amazing is indeed a little lovely, a little amazing and completely satisfying.