Brenda Blethyn, Raven Goodwin

"Lovely & Amazing" is scarcely how the principal characters regard themselves in Nicole Holofcener's second feature, a comic take on female insecurity in general and modern American women's uptightness about their bodies in particular.

Lovely & Amazing” is scarcely how the principal characters regard themselves in Nicole Holofcener’s second feature, a comic take on female insecurity in general and modern American women’s uptightness about their bodies in particular. Engaging, intermittently insightful but too glib to wring full value out of its subject matter, this brightly performed study of an extended family of females has enough going for it to quickly graduate from the fest circuit to a respectable career in specialized release.

Like the writer-director’s spry 1996 debut effort “Walking and Talking,” which centered on the friendship between two women in the midst of romantic entanglements, this one evinces keen antenna for (mostly) female foibles, a good ear for dialogue, talent for directing thesps and a clean, unfussy visual style.

But Holofcener’s admirable decision to wade into somewhat deeper thematic water here isn’t entirely matched by a willingness to truly grapple with the issues she raises, which ultimately results in a rather lightweight, if enjoyable, film about some psychological and emotional problems that could bear more thoughtful scrutiny.

Jane Marks (Brenda Blethyn) is a lively, well-off matriarch who would seem to have passed only one personality trait to her daughters — massive self-absorption. Tired of seeing her romantic life dwindle as her weight increases along with her age, Jane submits to liposuction at the hands of her handsome doctor (Michael Nouri), about whom she develops some wildly unfounded romantic fantasies.

But at least Jane can afford her delusions and impulsive behavior. Her eldest daughter, Michelle (Catherine Keener), is a neurotic mess, a classic case of a woman who reached her peak in high school, where she was homecoming queen and regarded as “creative,” and has spent the subsequent two decades in a slow downward spiral.

Busying herself making odd arts and crafts creations she can’t sell and given to sleeping with her young daughter to avoid her husband, Catherine greets the world with the f-word every day and would fail a kindergarten self-esteem test.

Michelle’s sister Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) has more going for her — youth, no burdensome husband or kids, and the silken looks to possibly make it as a Hollywood actress, which she is beginning to do — but she’s a wreck all the same. Hopelessly insecure, she trains her emotional attention onto the scruffy dogs she “saves” from the L.A. streets, and is so uncertain of her sexual attractiveness that she blows a “chemistry” audition with hunky TV star Kevin McCabe (Dermot Mulroney).

Wild card in the family is Jane’s 8-year-old adopted daughter Annie (Raven Goodwin), a chubby black girl who loves her mom but has some issues that will likely become more pronounced as adolescence approaches.

Abruptly telling Jane at one point that, “I’m going to tear my skin off,” Annie is ridiculed about her weight during swim lessons (she loves freaking everyone out by floating motionless face-down for protracted periods, giving the impression that she’s unconscious) and has only the most tenuous of relationships with her much older sisters, who are forced to watch out for her during what becomes a long hospital stay for Jane.

Both Michelle and Elizabeth make stumbling attempts to break out of their ruts. Fed up with accusations that she’s never worked a day in her life, Michelle takes the first job she can, an $8-an-hour gig at a one-hour photo shop where her boss is Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), a half-handsome, half-gawky teen for whom Michelle immediately becomes Mrs. Robinson material.

Their ill-advised romance, which is finally thwarted by Jordan’s mother in gruesomely hilarious fashion, provides some welcome sexual frissons, as does a real-life tryst Elizabeth finally manages with Kevin.

In the film’s most startlingly blunt scene, Elizabeth, after enjoying some sack action with the macho actor, jumps out of bed and insists that Kevin make an absolutely honest assessment of every part of her body as she stands naked before him.

Reluctantly, the fellow complies, resulting in a sequence that rivets the attention due its frankness and originality, just as it vividly defines how nude scenes can yank the viewer out of a fictional narrative and into thoughts about the actors exposing themselves so vulnerably.

The women’s difficulties in negotiating their ways through life are played for laughs as much as for truth, and Holofcener is helped on both counts by her able cast.

Keener, who co-starred in “Walking and Talking,” keeps Michelle’s anger on an almost constant near-boil in a ceaselessly energetic performance. Her British cohorts, Blethyn and Mortimer, are also winning, the former proving quite amusing in her willful obliviousness to others’ concerns, the latter illuminating how even the loveliest of young women can feel a shyness that makes them want to hide from the world.

Where the film falls shortest of engaging its premises is with young Annie. Aware that her birth mother was a crack addict, and in some ways better adjusted than her older sisters, the girl is clearly beginning to deal with how physically different she is from the rest of her family. But she does so almost entirely internally, and in ways that suggest that her story mainly lies in the future, which is of little help to this film.

Given that Michelle’s little daughter is scarcely even heard from, one gets the sense that Holofcener simply avoided writing challenging scenes for the pre-teens because she couldn’t find a way to effectively integrate their feelings with those of the older characters. Pic would have been a more fulsome experience had it successfully embraced the three generations that are presented rather than just two.

Gyllenhaal and Mulroney inject lively flirtatiousness into the picture that is very energizing.

Physically, pic has a pleasantly crisp look; without knowing it in advance, it would be hard to guess it was shot on 24-frame high definition video rather than on film.

Lovely & Amazing

Production

A Blow Up Pictures presentation of a Good Machine production in association with Roadside Attractions. (International sales: Good Machine, N.Y.) Produced by Anthony Bregman, Eric d'Arbeloff, Ted Hope. Executive producers, Jason Kliot, Joana Vicente, Michael Kafka. Co-producer, Debra Grieco. Co-executive producers, Charles Rusbasan, Judith Zarin, Mike Escott. Directed, written by Nicole Holofcener.

Crew

Camera (HD video-to-35mm), Harlan Bosmajian; editor, Rob Frazen; music, Craig Richey; production designer, Devorah Herbert; art director, Missy Parker; costume designer, Vanessa Vogel; sound (Dolby Digital), Brian Linder; supervising sound editor, Kelly L. Oxford; casting, Jeanne McCarthy. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Aug. 31, 2001. (Also in Toronto Film Festival.) Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Michelle Marks - Catherine Keener Jane Marks - Brenda Blethyn Elizabeth Marks - Emily Mortimer Annie Marks - Raven Goodwin Lorraine - Aunjaue Ellis Bill - Clark Gregg Jordan - Jake Gyllenhaal Paul - James LeGros Dr. Crane - Michael Nouri Kevin McCabe - Dermot Mulroney

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