The Naked Truth
If you love the womens movie but cant stomach the warmed-over tripe that Hollywood is force-feeding us under that rubric, treat yourself to Nicole Holofceners new comedy, Lovely and Amazing. Holofcener, whose first film was the charming but tentative Walking and Talking, specializes in female neurosis, but youll see no earth mothers or lovable wackos here. Her characters tend to be conspicuously unsuccessful women in their 30s, staggering through life burdened with insecurities that are expressed in a humming anger directed both inward at themselves, and outward at friends, family and the men who fail to satisfy them. They dont nurse each other through breast cancer, or make themselves endlessly available for consoling dinners in chic eateries, or burst into plucky song-and-dance routines from old musicals when adversity strikes. Their telephone conversations are routinely laced with the discreet passive-aggressive bitchery of which women are so often accused, and theyre capable of significant mutual betrayal. Their virtues include truculent persistence, a fierce attachment to mad principles that get them deeper into trouble, and a habit of closing ranks when anyone outside their circle tries to tell them exactly what theyve been telling each other. Theyre so real, we can practically smell the autobiography that went into creating them.
Lovely and Amazing is about a family of women with a gene pool thats primed for insecurity. In late middle age, Jane Marks (Brenda Blethyn) is still so uncomfortable in her own body that shes undergoing liposuction to remove the fat she believes is preventing her, after many a dry year, from meeting a new man. Her eldest daughter, Michelle -- played by Catherine Keener, who in a relatively short career has practically cornered the market on mouthy bitches and even won an Oscar nomination for one, in Being John Malkovich -- is a slovenly, acid-tongued former homecoming queen who attempts, without success or support from her disapproving husband (Clark Gregg), to hawk her tiny chair sculptures around local boutiques. When she fails, shes apt to yell Bitch or Asshole at the unresponsive sales assistants, and Fuck you to anyone in her family who suggests she might get a paying job. Well into her 30s, Michelle is mired in sibling rivalry, not only with her slightly younger sister Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), but with Annie (a terrific Raven Goodwin), the black 8-year-old whom Jane has adopted. Elizabeth -- an actress whose career shows signs of taking off but whos saddled with a clueless nature journalist and yoga nut for a boyfriend (James Le Gros) and is as hard on herself as Michelle is on others -- obsesses endlessly over her flabby upper arms. One way or another, the two older sisters are their mothers daughters; the jury is still out on Annie, who possesses a natural solidity -- she has a gift for telling the unvarnished truth without a hint of malice -- that transcends the fat little body she keeps filling with junk food, but who lately has been showing signs of the family curse. She wants to straighten her hair and lighten her skin, and has developed an attention-getting habit of floating facedown in swimming pools.
True to the axiom that the womens film requires little in the way of plot, Lovely and Amazing meanders along from one short, dialogue-laden scene to the next. Holofcener has directed several episodes of Sex and the City, and from time to time the movie feels like a risque prime-time comedy with a penchant for throwing in just one more gag because it seems irresistible. Still, the film moves forward with a nice lilting rhythm, and the apparent aimlessness mirrors the loose-endedness of many a real life. The sisters trials proceed in parallel -- each suffers setbacks, each takes a lover with unsuitable written all over him, yet each responds in her own unsuitable way. In one marvelously funny and touching scene, the preternaturally skinny Elizabeth stands naked before a bemused one-night stand (Dermot Mulroney) and asks him to count off her physical flaws and (parenthetically) her strong points. When he complies with nervous candor, she thanks him, dresses and goes off satisfied. Its at this point that you start to notice that, all along, the movies wistful, tender score has been signaling Holofceners protective affection for this hapless crew, and that a subtle shift is taking place. At the end, as the three sisters prepare to welcome their mother home from the hospital, theyve had no epiphanies; their lives have not shifted materially, and they havent become saints. But theyve been strengthened, at least in the knowledge that dead horses cant be flogged forever. Even Jane betrays a kind of dignity: When a nurse comments on how lucky Annie is to be adopted, Jane answers quietly, Shes not lucky -- shes entitled.
Somewhere in the middle of Lovely and Amazing, Annie tells a risky Jewish joke to Lorraine (Aunjanue Ellis), the African-American Big Sister shes been assigned to so that she can have meaningful contact with a black person. Then she reminds the appalled Lorraine that she, too, is Jewish. Like Bridget Joness Diary, only better, Lovely and Amazing is the feminist version of the Jewish joke thats only funny when told by a Jew. If the movie had been made by a man, a lot of feminists would bear down, roaring, and theyd be right. Lovely and Amazing is Holofceners deep, uncompromising curtsy to women she knows, and very likely is. When all is said and done, she loves them to pieces -- and so, I trust, will you.
Its devoutly to be hoped that the British novel from which Alan Taylors The Emperors New Clothes is adapted -- The Death of Napoleon, by Simon Leys -- has more going for it than the movie. The conceit is that Napoleon (Ian Holm) never really died in exile on the island of Elba. Instead, the imperious old bugger switches identities with an uppity deckhand (also played by Holm) and hauls off to Paris, where he shacks up with a proletarian wench who goes by the name of Pumpkin (High Fidelitys Iben Hjejle); deploys his strategic skills toward marketing her watermelons (Im not making this up); and goes about with his hair combed forward, expecting to be treated like royalty. From time to time the movie ambles back to the island, where the cheeky deckhand has gotten so used to the royal treatment that -- when the time comes for the real Napoleon to take back his throne -- the impostor refuses to give up the job.
Holm, whose stature always exceeds his size, is as good as he can be under the circumstances. Hjejle is lovely to behold, and the movie is beautifully lit in Dutch Masters gray. Other than that, The Emperors New Clothes is a great big snore that belabors its anti-imperial message with a shovel. How like the English to try to cut a Frenchman down to size -- and, in this case, how very beside the historical point.
LOVELY AND AMAZING | Written and directed by NICOLE HOLOFCENER | Produced by ANTHONY BREGMAN, ERIC DARBELOFF and TED HOPE | Released by Lions Gate Films | At Laemmles Sunset 5, Landmarks NuWilshire
THE EMPERORS NEW CLOTHES | Directed by ALAN TAYLOR | Written by KEVIN MOLONY, TAYLOR and HERBIE WAVE | Based on the novel THE DEATH OF NAPOLEON by SIMON LEYS | Produced by UBERTO PASOLINI | Released by Paramount Classics | At Loews Beverly Center, Laemmles Santa Monica
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.