The Naked Truth

Lovely and Amazing is just that, the Emperor has no clothes

If you love the women's movie but can't stomach the warmed-over tripe that Hollywood is force-feeding us under that rubric, treat yourself to Nicole Holofcener's new comedy, Lovely and Amazing. Holofcener, whose first film was the charming but tentative Walking and Talking, specializes in female neurosis, but you'll 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 don't nurse one another 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 they're 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 they've been telling one another. They're 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 that's primed for insecurity. In late middle age, Jane Marks (Brenda Blethyn) is still so uncomfortable in her own body that she's 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, she's 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 also 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 who's 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 mother's 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 she has developed an attention-getting habit of floating facedown in swimming pools.

True to the axiom that the women's 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 risquť 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. It's at this point that you start to notice that, all along, the movie's wistful, tender score has been signaling Holofcener's 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, they've had no epiphanies; their lives have not shifted materially, and they haven't become saints. But they've been strengthened, at least in the knowledge that dead horses can't 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, "She's not lucky—she's entitled."

Somewhere in the middle of Lovely and Amazing, Annie tells a risky Jewish joke to Lorraine (Aunjanue Ellis), the African-American Big Sister she's 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 Jones's Diary, only better, Lovely and Amazing is the feminist version of the Jewish joke that's 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 they'd be right. Lovely and Amazing is Holofcener's 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.

It's devoutly to be hoped that the British novel from which Alan Taylor's The Emperor's 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 Fidelity's Iben Hjejle); deploys his strategic skills toward marketing her watermelons (I'm 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 Emperor's 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 was written and directed by Nicole Holofcener; produced by Anthony Bregman, Eric D'arbeloff and Ted Hope; and stars Brenda Blethyn, Catherine Keener, Emily Mortimer and Raven Goodwin. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine; The Emperor's New Clothes was 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; and stars Ian Holm and Iben Hjejle. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.

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