Lovely and Amazing

(2002) *** R
91 min. Lions Gate. Director: Nicole Holofcener. Cast: Catherine Keener, Brenda Blethyn, Emily Mortimer, Raven Goodwin, Aunjanue Ellis.

With Lovely and Amazing, writer-director Nicole Holofcener offers a clever and funny riff on self-esteem and the family dynamic. The planned accidents which comprise the story--and the fine ensemble that enacts them--give the film an unpredictability and a mischievous, improvisational feel missing in many indie comedies.

Catherine Keener plays the pivotal character--Michelle Marks--richly drawn as a woman approaching middle age who has neither settled happily in her marriage nor found professional fulfillment. She makes twiggy little chairs for disinterested boutiques (tellingly, she wishes she could sit in them). When her young daughter begs to be read to, the cartoon-watching Michelle proposes she drop it and join her mother on the couch. Michelle is flighty, tactless, and impractical. In short, she's a child, a fact made even more evident by her sexless retreats from her marriage bed to her daughter's bed. In one of the snappier bits of dialogue, an old acquaintance tells Michelle, who's incredulous at her friend's accomplishments, "We're 36," to which Michelle responds, "I know, but we're not 36 36."

She's not alone in her neurotic need for attention. Michelle's sister Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) is an actress consumed with her own physical shortcomings, who--when not bemoaning the indignities of her profession--obsessively saves stray dogs. Michelle and Elizabeth have an African-American adopted stepsister named Annie (Raven Goodwin), a handful who pretends to drown for attention, when not endearingly nattering over hair and makeup. The eight-year-old Annie, by the contrast of her age, underscores the infantile self-involvement of the rest, including mother Jane (Brenda Blethyn), who spends the vast majority of the film in the hospital for a liposuction surgery.

Holofcener assuredly guides the story down an unconventional path. Her swift and subtle exposition launches the tightly efficient ninety-minute narrative. She elicits relaxed and assured performances from her cast, which also includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Dermot Mulroney, and James LeGros (the latter two appeared with Keener some years back in Tom DiCillo's indie comedy Living in Oblivion). Finally, Holofcener incisively observes all the little things we do to compensate for our insecurities. As Blethyn's deceptively tossed-off reading of the title phrase points out, our desperate quest for approval proves unnecessary; like Dorothy in Oz, what we sought--seen in the proper light--was there all along.

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