For good and for ill, the spirit of Woody Allen continues to loom large over the films of Nicole Holofcener: Her fifth feature, “Enough Said,” could have borne the less elegant title of “Ex-Husbands and Ex-Wives.” Principally concerned with the pleasures, pitfalls and unreasonable expectations that can accompany romance after marriage, this enjoyably meandering ensemble comedy sets up a small Los Angeles-based constellation of characters around Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a divorced mom warily embracing an unexpected second shot at love. If Holofcener’s recognizable style of barbed yet compassionate emotional probing is showing some mild signs of mainstream blandification, the presence of a wonderful James Gandolfini in one of his final screen performances represents a huge plus that could draw more eyes than usual to this Sept. 20 Fox Searchlight release.
Following her New York-set feature “Please Give,” Holofcener is back in the L.A. she explored in “Lovely & Amazing” and “Friends With Money,” a gently sun-dappled realm populated by middle-class white characters whose various hang-ups and insecurities are held up for gentle comic scrutiny. A decidedly well-off masseuse preparing to send her daughter Ellen (Tracey Fairaway) off to college, Eva isn’t really looking for a boyfriend when she attends a party and meets Albert (Gandolfini), himself the divorced father of a university-bound daughter. But the two hit it off on a first date, during which Eva’s sometimes blunt, awkward remarks find a warm complement in Albert’s humorous, easygoing manner, and things swiftly turn serious for the new couple.
Soon enough, Eva begins keeping a mental catalogue of Albert’s strengths and weaknesses, considering their likely impact on the relationship’s long-term viability. Euphemistically describing her new beau as “not classically handsome,” Eva readily admits that he’s heavier than she would like, and he is, by his own admission, a bit of a slob, with a lightly cluttered house and a garden overrun with weeds. At the same time, he’s tender and sweet; he has an interesting job at a museum of TV history; the sex is great, if a bit tricky due to body size differences; and Eva feels entirely comfortable around him in a way she hasn’t felt with anyone in years.
While it retains the somewhat shapeless, character-driven story approach that has characterized all the writer-director’s work so far, “Enough Said” hinges on a plot twist that is fairly guessable from the get-go, making it a relief that the script gets it out of the way early on. Suffice to say that Eva’s ongoing assessment of Albert, compulsively rearranging his pros and cons, leads her into a moral gray zone that forces her to grapple with some difficult if hardly new questions: Why are some couples compatible and others are not? How can one woman’s ex be another’s soul mate? Is self-improvement possible, or is happiness more a matter of acceptance and compromise?
The Allen influence is most pronounced in the way Holofcener engages these issues using a mix of tart, offhand observations and earnest philosophical digressions, setting in motion a free-flowing dialogue about life, love, class and contentment. A key voice in the discussion is that of Eva’s massage client Marianne (Catherine Keener), a published poet with an airy, friendly manner and exquisite taste in home furnishings; her own divorce remains enough of a sore spot that she advises Eva to proceed with some caution. Providing another perspective on the matter is Eva’s therapist friend Sarah (Toni Collette), whose own reasonably happy marriage to Will (Ben Falcone) is not without its regular challenges.
While the conversation sparkles and amuses as ever, there are indications here that Holofcener’s uniquely perceptive voice has begun to calcify somewhat into a familiar house style. Immaculately shot by Xavier Grobet, “Enough Said” may be her cleanest, most polished and broadly funny effort to date; its emotional generosity is undeniable, but so is its tendency to smooth over some of the hard, brittle edges that have been the more interesting hallmarks of Holofcener’s work. Some of the story’s incidental threads — such as Eva’s growing bond with Ellen’s needy friend, Chloe (Tavi Gevinson), or Sarah’s weirdly passive-aggressive relationship with her cleaning lady (Anjelah Johnson-Reyes) — feel like overly calculated subplots. The passage of time is marked by regular montages of Eva massaging her clients, which, as bathed in Marcelo Zarvos’ easy-listening score, usher the film in a soothingly banal direction.
Doing the most to counteract these tendencies is Gandolfini, his eyes twinkling with good humor in what will likely be remembered as one of his warmest, most vulnerable and enjoyable performances. Never vain or self-conscious, the actor (who died of a heart attack in June) gamely embraces a character whose unhealthy diet and sizable gut are regular subjects of conversation and occasional contempt, making clear that Albert knows his personal defects well and needs someone who can acknowledge them with kind acceptance, not cruel sarcasm.
Amazingly, this is Louis-Dreyfus’ first live-action film role since she appeared in Allen’s “Deconstructing Harry” (1997), and while she’s a frequently delightful presence here, her arsenal of funny expressions and unthinking outbursts at times suggest glib sitcom beats rather than the tics of a fully rounded character. Still, by the end, the actress has brought Eva to a place of appreciable depth, aided in no small part by Gandolfini, with whom she generates a marvelous onscreen chemistry; unlikely a match as their characters may seem at first, these two look genuinely good together.
The supporting cast is excellent across the board, with Collette’s Sarah emerging a tetchy but sympathetic figure (the actress happily retains her Australian accent here), and Keener clearly having fun as an aging hippie turned decor queen. Relative newcomers Fairaway, Gevinson and Eve Hewson all leave vivid and entirely distinctive impressions as as Ellen, Chloe and Albert’s daughter Tess, respectively.