A Satirical Leap Out Of The Chick-Flick Ghetto

Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely and Amazing , from her own screenplay, jumps to the head of the class of women’s films

Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely and Amazing , from her own screenplay, jumps to the head of the class of women’s films that manage to avoid the ghetto of sentimental chick-flicks by treating female follies with a satirical style. Ms. Holofcener’s acclaimed first film, Walking and Talking (1996), with Catherine Keener and Anne Heche, had a sharper focus than the more diffuse and expansive Lovely and Amazing , but the character-driven narrative structures and the felicitous observations of behavior are equally insightful in both works.

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Ms. Holofcener begins her new film with a strikingly unprofessional photo shoot in which young and not-quite-rising actress Elizabeth Marks (Emily Mortimer) keeps interrupting the photographer with outbursts of insecurity about her looks and the permutations of her costume.

Insecurity seems to run in her single-sex family, as we are introduced to her mother, Jane (Brenda Blethyn), and her two sisters, Michelle (Catherine Keener), the oldest, and 8-year-old African-American adoptee Annie (Raven Goodwin). The mother is more foolishly and perilously obsessive about her bodily appearance than any of her three daughters; she is preparing to undergo liposuction in a vain effort to gain the love of her surgeon.

Michelle, a former homecoming queen, is determined to become a successful artist even though no shop is interested in selling her weirdly shaped glassware. To make matters worse, her whiny husband keeps nagging her to get a real paying job to help with the expenses. In desperation, Michelle takes a ridiculously low-salaried position as a one-hour-photo-lab assistant. Her “boss” is the owner’s teenage son, Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), who immediately makes a clumsy play for the older but by no means wiser Michelle, who becomes increasingly receptive to the boy’s advances.

This gander-turning-the-tables-on-the-goose theme, with all its taboo-breaking, is another sign of the intensifying Frenchification of American independent cinema. After all, why shouldn’t American actresses in their late 30’s and 40’s and even 50’s follow the flower-strewn path of Micheline Presle in Devil in the Flesh (1947) and Edwige Feuillère in The Game of Love (1954) by initiating beardless youths in the sacraments of the flesh?

Still, the dominant concern of the film is not so much female cradle-snatching as women’s self-hating idealization of the fashion-model image of the female body celebrated in so-called women’s magazines. This cultural delusion doesn’t affect Michelle as much as it does her ditsy mother and her two very vulnerable sisters. Just short of the abyss of melodrama, Jane Marks almost dies while recuperating from the surgical procedure she undertook purely to satisfy her vanity and enhance her love life.

In one of the most masochistic scenes ever filmed, Elizabeth nervously submits her realistically imperfect nudity for post-coital inspection by her one-night-stand lover (Dermot Mulroney). She then actually prompts him to comment on all her self-acknowledged weak points, from her asymmetrical breasts to her under-exercised arms and her unequally distributed body mass generally. The bitter irony is that Ms. Mortimer, when clothed, is an attractive and talented actress with a heartbreakingly winsome smile.

Saddest of all, however, is the otherwise level-headed Annie, who, determined to become an authentic part of the family, keeps trying to smooth out her hair and lighten her skin with makeup. She then acts out her problems by holding her breath underwater in her swimming class long enough to drive her elders crazy with fear.

Amid all the self-inflicted confusion, the family survives, if it doesn’t thrive. What binds it together is ultimately stronger than the misadventures of its members, the most spectacular of which is Michelle’s farcical arrest for “molesting” Jordan, a minor, especially in his mother’s shrewishly suspicious eyes.

Ms. Blethyn, Ms. Keener, Ms. Mortimer and Ms. Goodwin are so generous in their interplay that, as an ensemble, they provide their own subtext. The acting seems more improvisatory than it actually was. According to the production notes, the film was shot from a meticulously detailed script. It is not surprising, therefore, that Ms. Holofcener takes years and years to bring each project to fruition. One hopes that she can speed up the process for the sake of us grown-up moviegoers, male and female, who prefer dwelling vicariously in the emotional present rather than in the cerebral future.

The Anguish Of Alzheimer’s

Bille August’s A Song for Martin turns out to be an almost unbearably morbid love story about being trapped in the relentless torment of Alzheimer’s disease. There is also a tragic real-life back story involving one of the cast members. In other words, this is a Swedish film from a prize-winning director associated in recent years with Ingmar Bergman. Not only does even a great love fail to conquer all; it is eventually ravaged by the clinical horrors of a deteriorating brain.

Barbara (Viveka Seldahl) and Martin (Sven Wollter) meet for the first time when they are both middle-aged and married to other people. Their common bond at first is music, which they both perform professionally, she as a concert violinist and he as a world-famous conductor. Their first personal encounter occurs when Martin is leading the Stockholm Symphony Orchestra as a guest conductor and Barbara, as the first violinist, corrects an error he has made in the orchestral score for one of his compositions. Impressed by her musicianship, and alone in Stockholm, Martin begins pursuing Barbara, though both have grown children who would object as strongly to this burgeoning relationship as would the respective spouses. But nothing can stop the onset of reckless passion once each realizes separately what has been missing for years from their emotional lives. They flee from their previous attachments to a beautiful home on the Swedish coast where they hope to collaborate on creative musical projects.

The sheer ecstasy shared by Barbara and Martin takes up very little of the film’s running time, until the sheer agony of Alzheimer’s begins moving front and center after several troubling foreshadowings. Actually, the first clue to Martin’s degenerative condition was the “error” in the score that Barbara corrected, which had ironically provided the spark that ignited their midlife romance. One night while conducting, Martin is unable to continue and has to be helped from the stage. On another occasion, he insists that Barbara let him take her out to dinner despite her strange reluctance. When they arrive at the restaurant, the maitre d’ seems curiously surprised to see them. It is only when Martin sits down and realizes he has no appetite that he deduces they’ve already dined at that same restaurant earlier in the evening. It’s all downhill from there, with C.A.T. scans and M.R.I. procedures. The prognosis is hopeless and inexorable.

Barbara tries valiantly to salvage what she can of their once-idyllic love. But she is thwarted at every turn by Martin’s violent reaction to his creative disability. He begins to resent her mental health and unimpaired virtuosity to the point that he smashes her precious violin. Other uglier and even more threatening actions persuade Barbara to have him hospitalized. But she resists having him permanently institutionalized until, in a supreme act of love, it is Martin who insists that he be committed to spare Barbara further suffering. With his last shred of sanity, he has taken pity on the woman he loved above all else.

The uncanny performances of Ms. Seldahl and Mr. Wollter reflect their real-life marriage, which ended with her death from cancer shortly after the film was completed. As the French say, it is to cry.

An Inner-City Fable

David S. Goyer’s ZigZag , from a screenplay by Mr. Goyer, based on the novel by Landon J. Napolean, takes on the challenge of making a 15-year-old autistic African-American inner-city kid who is also a whiz with numbers, self-nicknamed ZigZag (Sam Jones III), not only the point-of-view protagonist, but also a dispenser of internal-monologue insights. The result is a syncopated stream-of-consciousness lyricism that often comes up short on suspension of disbelief. ZigZag keeps constantly bobbing his head as if he were more mentally retarded than a point-of-view character should be. Yet we are thrust into idiot-savant territory when ZigZag robs a safe in the Grub ‘n’ Grog restaurant where he works as a dishwasher for a bigoted boss (Oliver Platt), who comes off as a compulsive mumbler of obscenities, a drunkenly pretentious sensualist, a creature so far beyond even self-caricature as to qualify as a nightmarish hallucination of ZigZag’s autistic consciousness.

Not that the boy’s home life is any less monstrous, with a violently abusive father (Wesley Snipes) who taunts, beats and harasses him when he doesn’t bring enough rent money home from his after-school dishwashing job. In fact, the only bright note in ZigZag’s dismal existence is a cancer-ridden social worker named Singer (John Leguizamo), who is selflessly devoted to ZigZag’s welfare and moral instruction. The plot lost me somewhere between the point when ZigZag steals the money from his boss’ safe and the point when Singer and ZigZag combine to get the money back into the safe undetected-after it has passed through the hands of ZigZag’s brutal father and a mob loan shark operating a strip joint.

Mr. Leguizamo and Natasha Lyonne’s Jenna, a prostitute with the proverbial heart of gold, bring conviction and expertise to a movie that needs these qualities desperately. There are allegorical layers all around, including a compassionate Native American who is ZigZag’s co-worker. Strangely, the character’s name is Dale, but the actor’s name is the much more colorful Michael Greyeyes. There is also an African-American detective with the heart of a Franciscan friar, and a merciful teacher who is not traumatized when the naïve ZigZag begs to see her breasts. All right: Mr. Goyer and, I imagine, Mr. Napolean have their hearts in the right place, and their combined good intentions make the movie virtually review-proof. Indeed, the ZigZag-Singer relationship has evoked comparisons with Midnight Cowboy (1969). Unfortunately, Mr. Goyer’s loose, unaccountable direction is technically sophisticated in the worst way.

A Satirical Leap Out Of The Chick-Flick Ghetto