Lovely and Amazing

(Nicole Holofcener, USA, 2002)


This is an odd, ambitious little film that will divide its audiences. To a very large degree, one's reaction to it depends on where one sits in debates about the 'beauty myth'. If you believe that female glamour is a horrible lie that oppresses all women, you are likely to be touched by this lightly Chekhovian tale of three sisters and their mother.

All these characters are glumly fighting with problems of self-image. Jane (Brenda Blethyn), mother of this sad clan, has put herself in for cosmetic surgery. Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) is an actor who is painfully aware of how she doesn't measure up to the physical standards set by the film and television industries. Michelle (Catherine Keener) used to be a homecoming queen, and is now caught in an unhappy marriage. Eight year old Annie (Raven Goodwin), who is adopted, starts to become dissatisfied with her black skin.

If you tend more to the Camille Paglia position that beauty is not merely an ideological myth but a vital, inspiring ideal, Lovely and Amazing may well irritate you as much as it did me. The film's rigid political analysis of daily life is given away by the fact that every man in it is absolutely horrible, insensitive and brutish. The only possibility for hope and progress held out by the film is in its fragile image of women learning to care for and support each other.

Writer-director Nicole Holofcener has made her reputation with character-driven ensemble pieces about love and relationships, including her debut feature Walking and Talking (1996) and episodes of Sex and the City and Six Feet Under. She tends to a simple, talky, television-influenced style which sometimes registers rather flatly.

In Lovely and Amazing Holofcener's artistic goal is essentially literary. She aspires to a deliberately undramatic, slice-of-life ambience akin to the stories of Raymond Carver. It is refreshing to see an American director refuse to tie everything up neatly in a personal journey for each character. But it is also frustrating to experience something so slight and attenuated.

But Holofcener at least knows what she's doing, which is clear from her work with the impressive ensemble cast. Keener, in particular, excels in expressing that emotion she embodies so well, sullen disappointment. Her scenes with the besotted teenager Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) provide the story's brightest and feistiest moments. But overall, I found the tone of Lovely and Amazing too brittle, and its attitude towards the issues it raises too precious.

© Adrian Martin November 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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