Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Late to the Party #8: The films of Nicole Holofcener

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around.

One of my pop culture resolutions for 2014 was to be able to say I've seen the entire filmography of more directors.  There are so many Martin Scorsese movies and films by the Coen brothers that I still haven't seen (cut me some slack, I'm only 22), so I figured that those would be too daunting to begin with.  Instead, I opted to start small with Nicole Holofcener, partially spurred on by the fact that Enough Said was coming out on DVD soon and I was planning on watching it anyway.  When the year started, I'd never seen a Holofcener film.  In only a few weeks time, I devoured all five of them, and she's quickly shot up the ranks to become one of my favorite writer-directors.

All of her films have received general acclaim, but it's not hard to understand why she doesn't tend to come up in conversations about the best filmmakers working right now.  There's nothing showy about her movies -- the comedy isn't laugh-out-loud funny, the drama eschews any sort of histrionics -- but that smallness is part of their low-key charm.  Holofcener is a great translator of life onto screen, and there are few who have a better eye for the quotidian insights and occurrences of everyday life.  She's able to craft so many scenes that you would never think to put in a movie, yet they make perfect sense when you see them.  Her films are full of dialogue that feels natural, but very sharp, really getting at the rhythms of normal conversation.  Aside from Enough Said, her work is also refreshingly light on plot.  The true joy of her films exist between the plot points, where many scenes serve only to fill out her complex and lively characters.

Yet despite her films having a relaxed feel to them, the people who inhabit them are anything but.  Holofcener populates her stories with the restless and uncomfortable, people who can't quite get a handle on the tiny little things nibbling away at them.  A few of her detractors lobby the criticism that her work is based around people whose cozy lives are filled with "first-world problems."  To say nothing of the particular grossness of that phrase, making such a judgment ignores how much she's able to probe past the surface elements of her subjects' lives.  It's the illusion of comfort that runs through most of her movies -- her characters may be upper-middle class people, but their status is often the very source of the troubles they rub up against.  There seems to be a listlessness that comes with reaching a comfortable place in your life, as if there are no more goalposts to aim for, and Holofcener explores that complicated ground beautifully.  As Frances McDormand's character says in Friends with Money, "there's no more wondering what my life is going to be like."  Petty as their troubles may seem, every character is sketched with such fine detail that there's something universal about the malaise that they feel.

An even bigger source of unrest in Holofcener's characters is image.  Her films frequently feature women who are wrestling with uncertainty about how they appear.  Lovely & Amazing centers this concern around a family of four women, each of the them insecure about a different aspect of themselves.  Matriarch Jane (Brenda Blethyn) wants to get liposuction because she's not happy with her weight; while her adult daughters (Catherine Keener and Emily Mortimer) fret over their career and level of sexiness, respectively; and even her adoptive African American preteen (Raven Goodwin, in her debut role) is self-conscious about her hair not being straight.  The film bumps against -- while never explicitly stating -- the idea that Jane has passed down these deep insecurities to her daughters, even though one isn't related by blood.  In a way, all of these women seek the approval of others, most notably in the pivotal scene where Emily Mortimer's Elizabeth stands naked and asks Kevin (Dermot Mulroney) to critique her body.

These themes of beauty, womanhood, and fulfillment come up time and time again in Holofcener's filmography.  One of the central things driving her characters is that they're so concerned that others see them through the lens that they see themselves.  Their anxieties are so well-drawn that when you look at them, you realize that there's nothing superficial about being image-obsessed -- it's actually a deeply human feeling.  Age goes hand-in-hand with her concerns about self-image too.  These coming of middle age films examine life in one's 30s and 40s, when people have to reconcile with the fact that time has started to weather them away a bit.

Another one of Holofcener's recurring elements is her inspection of the way people communicate with one another.  Her films may be heavily conversational, but the people in them rarely ever communicate in a healthy way.  When Laura (Anne Heche) gets engaged to her boyfriend in Walking and Talking, their relationship quickly devolves into constant arguments and bickering.  She focuses her ire on the birthmark he refuses to get checked out by a doctor, but the real problem is that she's unsure about the entire engagement in the first place.  When pressed about whether there are any deeper complaints that she has, Laura lies and says, "It's just about the birthmark."  But it's never just about the birthmark in Holofcener's films, where characters say things to avoid saying what they really mean.  Notice how when characters psychoanalyze others in Lovely & Amazing, it's often an expression of their own qualities.  Or in Friends With Money, where every get-together is punctuated by car rides that show each of the ladies talking about one another to their spouses. In both cases, the characters are so busy assessing the people around them that they haven't really taken the time to look within and get to the root of what's eating at them.

The few lukewarm reviews of Enough Said complained about its "Idiot Plot," and how annoying it was that the entire premise of the film centered around something completely avoidable.  But that's the entire point of the film, that things would be so much easier if Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) would just talk to Marianne (Catherine Keener) or Albert (James Gandolfini) about what's going on.  That's the thing about Holofcener's films: when a character has something to say, they almost never actually say it.  On the rare occasion that they do, it's not toward the intended target.  It's no surprise, then, that the most powerful parts of Please Give come from little moments of unspoken connection: Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) providing a shoulder to lean on for a sister (Amanda Peet) she doesn't always get along with, or sharing an understanding glance with Kate (Keener) near the end of the film.

Nicole Holofcener movies are relationship films, but they encompass all kinds of relationships, including friendship and family.  Romantic entanglements do occur, but they're almost always secondary to the former two.  This ethos has been in her work since day one, starting with Walking and Talking, which features one of the richest female friendships I've ever seen onscreen.  We're shown that Amelia and Laura are lifelong best friends, spending all of their time together as kids and even calling each other multiple times per day as adults.  But when Laura's life slowly becomes more independent from Amelia's, she doesn't need Amelia in the same way that Amelia needs her, and their process of slowly drifting apart is small, but painful nonetheless.

In a way, Big Jeans, the cancer-ridden cat whose story takes up the film's C-plot, is like a symbol for Laura and Amelia's friendship.  They're both technically her owner, but Amelia is the one who keeps and takes care of her, while Laura rarely ever sees her anymore.  Neither of the two are seen as the bad guy in this scenario, it's just that adulthood has caused them to have different expectations of their friendship.  Films for and about women often put the status of one's love life at the forefront, but the way Holofcener focuses on the multitude of relationships in her protagonists' lives just makes them feel like fuller human beings.  It's very deliberate that both Amelia and Laura are only able to straighten their respective romantic lives out once they mend the thing that really matters -- the friendship between the two of them.

The one film where romance does get a spotlight is Enough Said, and even then it still isn't played like a traditional romantic comedy.  One of the things that sets Albert and Eva apart is just how tired they seem, as if they're sick of going through the motions of relationships.  There's something particularly moving about the way Albert says, "You broke my heart...and I'm too old for that shit" when he finds out that Eva has been keeping the fact that she knows his ex-wife from him.  And still, the film implies that these two characters looking for romantic fulfillment are unconsciously doing so in an attempt to fill the void that will soon exist when their daughters both go to college in a few months.  Even when tackling romantic relationships directly, Holofcener finds a way to hearken it back to her recurring themes of family and in particular, motherhood.  The film's subplot centers around Eva's relationship with her daughter's friend Chloe (Tavi Gevinson).  The accidental way that Eva ends up spending more time with Chloe -- and her inability to see how much it's bothering her own daughter -- is a development that bubbles so slowly it's almost imperceptible.  In a film that's full of big lies and misunderstandings, this subtle conflict is the one that cuts the deepest.

Much credit is deserved for the way Holofcener sketches her characters and constructs conflicts, but some praise is owed to the acting as well.  In just five films, she's been able to work with great actors like Rebecca Hall, Emily Mortimer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Joan Cusack, Frances McDormand and James Gandolfini; who all perfectly transfer the depth of their characters from script to screen.  She's even gotten a career-best performance from some, including Jennifer Aniston in Friends With Money.  All the while, she barely ever reuses actors across multiple films like you see many other directors do, somehow managing to always find ways to get new actors to fit her naturalistic style.

Of course, the one major exception to this rule is Catherine Keener, who has appeared in every one of her films so far.  Together, Holofcener and Keener are like a distaff Scorsese and De Niro, bringing out the best of each other in their collaborations.  There isn't a major variation between the characters Holofcener writes for Keener --  they're all women who are a bit prickly, yet hiding some deeper anxiety -- but it's less a sign of limitation for either two than it is evidence that they know the perfect use of each other's talents.  The time may come when Keener doesn't appear in one of Holofcener's film, but it's not one I'd like to imagine any time soon.

So attuned are they to each other that Keener's best work is in 2010's Please Give, which I'd also pick as my favorite Holofcener film.  All of her stories follow the same pattern of being somewhat light and minor (though always funny) before sneaking up on you and delivering an emotional wallop, but Please Give might be the most successful at it.  It's just such a structurally sound film, setting up these tiny little threads that run alongside each other like the two adjacent apartments the story is centered around, and letting them topple over one by one like dominoes.  It's got all of the concerns we've come to expect from her work -- age, self-image, self-doubt -- but it's also a lovely little story about people stopping and realizing there's all this life that's occurring outside of themselves.

If there's one out of the bunch that's deserving of a critical reappraisal, it's definitely Friends With Money, Holofcener's third film.  It's not like it got panned by critics when it came out in 2006, but it's her lowest scoring film on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, and is usually placed last when fans rank her work in comment threads or on message boards.  Those who were skeptics already tend to see it as Holofcener indulging her worst instincts, and even some fans feel like it's a misstep with nothing new to say.  But it's actually a keen look into how caustic a tight-knit group of friends can be sometimes.  The four protagonists have been buddies for years, but everyone's so critical of one another, particularly of the aimless Olivia (Jennifer Aniston), who can't quite attain the level of financial success that everyone else has.  At one point in the film, somebody wonders whether they'd even be friends with each other if they had met at this current point in their lives.  But they've been friends for so long that they don't really have anybody else.  As difficult as the relationships may have become, there's a comfort to them as well.  Friends With Money perfectly understands the way inertia factors into these long-term bonds.  Despite its reputation, it might be one of Nicole Holofcener's best films.

But really, everything she's done so far is worth watching.  It's hard to think of many other directors who've been this consistently excellent over the course of five films.  Her work isn't the kind that announces its greatness, but there's something to admire about the quiet profundity of the revelations in them.  She can find loveliness and joy in even the smallest moments, like two parents watching their daughter with low self-esteem finally finding jeans that make her feel good about herself.  I look forward to seeing her stretch her boundaries in the future, as she seems to be doing with the upcoming Every Secret Thing.  It's new territory for her in more ways than one: not only is it the first film that she's not directing, but the screenplay is adapted from a novel by Laura Lippman.  Whether or not it will be worthy of praise is unknown, but based on her track record, she's got a lifelong fan in me.

1 comment:

  1. Finished it. This is definitely one of the longer individual pieces I can recall that you have written in recent memory.

    As you predicted, this is not really my type of film fare, but who knows; at some point down the line I may have reason to check them out.