Lovely and Amazing
Starring: Catherine Keener, Brenda Blethyn, Emily Mortimer, Dermot Mulroney, Jake Gyllenhaal

Nicole Holofcener

Writing credits: Nicole Holofcener
Distributor: Lions Gate Films
  (US 2002)

A recent discussion at the Cinemarati Roundtable dealt with the issue of why there are so few good roles for actresses. It seems that Hollywood regards the stuff men do as intrinsically more interesting than the stuff women do. The obvious answer would be more women directors and screenwriters, right? Well, when the screenwriter who brought us Thelma and Louise as a model of female empowerment then moves onto THE DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD, and Nicole Holofcener brings us stuff like LOVELY AND AMAZING, it makes me want to run as fast as I can to either the most testosterone-laden action flick I can find, or a really sophomoric teen sex comedy. Because if feminine power in the film industry means stories about really self-indulgent, self-destructive women who learn nothing over the course of our short acquaintanceship with them and who end up congratulating themselves on merely being able to get through the day, well, perhaps we have to re-examine what we women really want out of the film industry.

LOVELY AND AMAZING interweaves the lives of three women who are neither, and one who at least has some potential, despite some obvious handicaps. Jane Marks (Brenda Blethyn) is the mother of Michelle (Catherine Keener), Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) and the adoptive mother of Annie (Raven Goodwin), an overweight black child whose biological mother was a crackhead. Jane is a devoted and affirming mother to her adopted child, assuring her that her skin is gorgeous when she expresses a wish to be white. Yet all is not well in téte Jane, for despite the fact that "no one sees [her] naked", as daughter Michelle so tactlessly points out, she is off to have liposuction, leaving Annie in her eldest daughter's care.

Michelle, meanwhile, makes miniature chair sculptures and handpainted wallpaper, unsuccessfully marketing them around town to various craft shops and galleries. She is stuck in a marriage that has long since gone stale, to a man who whines about the job he hates but must keep because his wife doesn't contribute to the family income; and who may be having an affair with her best friend. Michelle's child seems like an afterthought to her life, and yet despite her artistic talent, she seems to regard childbirth as the only worthwhile thing she's ever done, prattling on endlessly about it to anyone who will listen, and many who won't. It’s hardly surprising, then, when she finds herself involved in an ill-advised affair with Jordan(Jake Gyllenhaal), her seventeen-year-old supervisor at the one hour photo shop in which she successfully applies for a job on a whim.

Elizabeth is an actress with self-image problems. Nervous and continually on the verge of hysteria, she seems ill-equipped to handle getting up in the morning, let alone the giant insatiable maw of the film industry. After being turned down for a role opposite an egotistical actor portrayed with deadpan perfection by Dermot Mulroney, she spends the night with him and then invites him to critique her body, which he is more than happy to do. Watching this pitifully thin young woman with zero body fat invite this man, who has similar body image issues, says her breasts are a bit droopy and her sticklike arms too flabby is as painful a scene as you'll ever sit through.

These two barely functional sisters are left to try to pull themselves together enough to care for the overweight, cynical Annie while Jane recuperates from ever-escalating complications of her liposuction surgery. I think the message of LOVELY AND AMAZING is supposed to be that only when we can accept ourselves, can we care for others, while at the same time, only when we step out of our self-involvement can we begin to accept ourselves. Well gee whiz, I didn’t need to sit through two hours of female whining to know that.

Good performances can often offset at least some of a weak script, and I suppose the fact that virtually every character in this film, with the exception of the prematurely cynical Annie, is completely insufferable is to the credit of the actors. Catherine Keener, a very strong actress who deserves a better character than the perpetual uterus-gazing Michelle, isn’t entirely convincing in this role. The absurdly thin Emily Mortimer, always on the verge of hysteria, fares better in a role that bears entirely too much resemblance to the equally hysterical Charlotte of SEX AND THE CITY. Brenda Blethyn is always wonderful, and her scenes with young Raven Goodwin, as she tries to affirm the beauty of the girl’s dark skin and nappy hair, are touching. Yet even Jane defines herself through how she’s seen by men, in this case, her oily and smarmy plastic surgeon, played by the always oily and smarmy Michael Nouri. Jake Gyllenhaal, a kind of downmarket Tobey Maguire is fine as the lovestruck Jordan, another in his string of tortured adolescent roles

The film’s one bright spot is a terrific performance by newcomer Raven Goodwin, as Annie. A desperately needy child who copes by overeating, feigning drowning in the local Y pool, and sassing her older adoptive sisters, she alone seems to understand the world as it is and has the coping mechanisms to deal with it. Annie is the only character who moves her gaze away from her own navel long enough to achieve any kind of personal growth. In her own unique way, she is both lovely and amazing. The others, alas, are neither.

- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2002 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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