“Made-Up” reps a promising, if uneven, directing debut from thesp Tony Shalhoub, here teaming with wife Brooke Adams for this self-described “coming of middle-age comedy.” The story of a fortysomething divorcee confronting the aging process, dating woes, and her teenage daughter’s newfound independence, pic bites off more than it can easily chew. Still, it will have its admirers, as it did at Santa Barbara (where it won the fest’s award for best feature), and while too offbeat for mainstream distribution, it could catch on with specialized auds.
Assigned to make a project for her video class, Kate James (Lynne Adams) decides she’ll tape her niece, Sara (Eva Amurri), giving Kate’s sister, Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), a thorough makeover. But the very idea of the video unleashes a host of insecurities in Elizabeth, once a successful actress who sacrificed her career for marriage and motherhood.
Since her ex-husband, Duncan (Gary Sinise), left her for a much younger woman (Light Eternity), Elizabeth has allowed herself to believe that if she were still young and beautiful, Duncan might not have left. And aspiring beautician Sara’s obsession with appearances only reinforces her mother’s fears.
Kate records the events of Elizabeth’s life, beginning with the makeover but hardly stopping there. When the “new,” younger-looking Elizabeth ventures out on a date with restaurant owner Max Hires (Shalhoub), Kate films the entire evening. But Elizabeth, tense on camera, wonders whether Max is attracted to the real or the cosmetically enhanced version of herself.
Third act deteriorates into a misguided screwball comedy, in which Kate plies her sister with alcohol in order to spice up her courtship with Max and create better footage. Unfortunately, Elizabeth can’t hold back, and is soon doing cartwheels on her lawn while her bemused, confused suitor looks on.
“Made-Up” has its moments, the funniest of these being Max and Elizabeth’s first date, in which Elizabeth’s makeover threatens to unravel before the night is over. Pic’s problem, however, is the abundance of so many conflicts that its premise isn’t clear. Is it a mockumentary on superficial attitudes about beauty and aging? An exploration of the complex, tension-fraught relationship between mother and daughter? Between sisters? A commentary on the trials of making documentaries? Or a dissertation on the often amorphous distinction between fiction and nonfiction?
As it happens, the confusion of “Made-Up” mirrors the situation it depicts; at one point Kate tells her sister their documentary needs to focus on a particular subject or risk losing the viewer’s interest.
But while the whole may be less than the sum of its parts, those parts are individually commendable. Shalhoub has an eye for composition and a strong sense of pacing. Lynne Adams’ script gets off some zippy one-liners. Brooke Adams gamely allows herself to appear (literally) in the worst possible light. And Amurri, who has her mother Susan Sarandon’s gorgeous saucer eyes, acts with impressive poise and confidence.