The writer-director Nicole Holofcener isn’t as much of a known brand as Woody Allen, but she deserves to be.
For the past 17 years, Holofcener, who got her start as one of Allen’s apprentice editors, has been making smart, sharply observant comedies about women and their relationships that manage to be both warmly amusing and stingingly on-point. Now, with “Enough Said,” Holofcener has made her most winning and widely accessible movie to date, the perfect film to satisfy longtime fans who follow her with Harry Potter-like obsession, as well as initiates who are new to her singular brand of droll, self-aware insight.
Lucky them. Such Holofcener classics as “Walking and Talking,” “Lovely and Amazing,” “Friends With Money” and “Please Give” still await, the better for their deliciously sardonic takes on friendship, family and class anxiety to deliver wallops of astonished, gratified recognition. For now, we can enjoy the first viewing of “Enough Said” together and witness first-hand its many bittersweet gifts.
Happy-saddest among them is the fact that “Enough Said” marks one of the final appearances by the late James Gandolfini, here playing a frumpy, overweight academic named Albert who embarks on an awkward romance with Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a masseuse who, like Albert, is the divorced parent of a teenaged daughter about to leave home for college.
After a near-disastrous first meeting at a cocktail party, Albert and Eva begin dating, their simpatico senses of humor bouncing off each other with spontaneous, almost telepathic ease and barely masking mutual anxieties regarding intimacy, independence, fragile self-worth and spreading middle-aged bodies. Thoroughly banishing any remaining vestiges of Tony Soprano, Gandolfini comes utterly disarmed to a role that he tackles with superb sensitivity and naked vulnerability. A bearded, sweet-natured butterball of emotional need, he both absorbs and deflects Eva’s spikier energy, which Louis-Dreyfus softens considerably by way of self-deprecating wit and her preternaturally expressive face.
Louis-Dreyfus takes on duties as Holofcener’s surrogate that in past movies most often have fallen to Catherine Keener. Here, Keener has a juicy supporting role as Marianne, a New Agey vegan goddess with whom Eva strikes up a friendship while she’s courting Albert. (One of the best lines in the film is when Keener’s character tells Eva that she’s a poet, and Eva wryly retorts, “And I’m a dreamer” before realizing the woman is serious.) It turns out that Louis-Dreyfus is the perfect foil for Holofcener’s often painfully self-conscious brand of chamber comedy, lending daffy relatability to an enterprise that could easily succumb to the solipsism of first-world problems and unexamined privilege.
A running gag involving Eva’s friend Sarah (Toni Collette) and her housekeeper teeters right on the edge of that potentially offensive boundary point. But in Holofcener’s assured hands, the tiny land mines that dot so many daily landscapes never detonate in ways that are fatal — just ruefully illuminating. At its best, “Enough Said” captures middle-age romance — its rhythms and repartee, its cautious hopes and incipient misgivings — in a way that’s never forced, even when the film’s central plot twist comes fully into play.
At that point, “Enough Said” enters fully into screwball territory — in both the antic and sophisticated sense of the term. Like the best romantic comedies of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Holofcener’s film zings and pops with hilarious dialogue (“What the hell is chervil?” Eva snorts after Marianne lovingly gives her fresh herbs from her perfectly un-manicured garden), but also gets to the heart of human nature: in this case, the lengths people go to in order to fill their empty spaces, and how lovable foibles become intolerable flaws.
In its own tough way, “Enough Said” posits that we largely have ourselves — or at least the stories we tell ourselves — to blame when that happens. But thanks to Gandolfini’s and Louis-Dreyfus’s radiant, quietly courageous central performances, viewers won’t feel accused as much as understood when they see themselves in Albert’s self-defeat or Eva’s self-deception. And, thanks to Holofcener’s own generous and compassionate heart, they’ll feel forgiven even as they wince in recognition. Feisty, funny, fizzy and deeply wise, “Enough Said” sparkles within and without, just like the rare gem that it is.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sexual content, some thematic material and brief strong language. 92 minutes.