Two Rom Coms: Half a Gem
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In a World/Enough Said Review
By Adam Tawfik
Judging by a majority of the romantic comedies that are churned out, the businessmen who create these vehicles seem to think that women, to whom they target their cynically sentimental drivel, have the collective IQ of a gumdrop. More insidiously, this genre has a tendency to espouse an evil ideology where characters (particularly the female ones) are reduced to their love lives and being romantic objects, and they perpetrate the status quo where men are in authority and women and children are subordinates, doing it in such a cutesy manner to cover up the sweeten the cyanide.
Unlike most years where romantic comedies pollute the cinemas in the early season and the summer, they have largely been abandoned this year by the major studios, with more hyper masculine action packed pelt-‘em-ups in their place.
Interestingly this autumn indie female directors and writers have coopted the genre as a way to provide a more insightful character study of a female protagonist. While the results are not as crass as their mainstream counterpoints, out of a sampling of two recent films, In a World and Enough Said, the final results are decidedly mixed. Let’s get the negativity out of the way.
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It’s not unreasonable that many creative people in front of and behind the camera would come on board with Lake Bell’s most recent project, In a World. World, which Bell wrote, directed, and starred in, has an intelligent thesis about the sexism in the oft forgotten voiceover-world and how women’s voices in that profession are either very girly or sultry.
I must confess that I was excited to see this film after hearing Bell’s amusing and insightful NPR interview, but honestly she pretty much lifted her talking points from the final scene in the film. Unfortunately, there’s 90 minutes of mostly humdrum inaction before that moment. Bell, instead of being a triple threat, ends up being uninspired on three counts.
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Her screenplay never achieves a consistent tone, swinging from moments of uncontrollably broad humor to chunks of pseudo-naturalistic awkwardness, neither of which comes off with precision. Subsequently, there’s a gaping discrepancy between characterizations and performances. Fred Melamen as Bell’s jealous and unsupportive father, Ken Marino as a narcissistic misogynous voice actor, and Stephanie Allynne as an obnoxiously idiotic receptionist are cloying caricatures while Michaela Watkins as Bell’s uptight and disciplined sister and Dimitri Martin as a socially awkward recording producer enamored with Bell’s character are cookie-cutter indie comedy archetypes.
There is sentimentality that feels more in place with a 1943 film than one in 2013. At one point, when Rob Corddry (delivering one of the few good performances), as Watkins’ mild-mannered and patient husband, discovers a romantic recording of his wife and an Irish guest at her hotel, we learn that it’s not as bad as it sounds. As if this isn’t annoying enough, this plotline has the annoying resolution of an audio recording of Watkins expressing her love for Corddry courtesy of the chirpy do-gooder Bell.
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The single worst moment is when Melamen, who viciously undermines his daughters for most of the film, has a very public change of heart after a pep talk from his chirpy and much younger girlfriend (Alexandra Holden). This is also the point where we see she may act like a bimbo for 90 minutes but isn’t actually a bimbo, in one of the film’s many crude attempts to try to show us that we shouldn’t judge people by the way they look and speak.
Lake Bell, who has provided solid support in various films and TV shows, is too wise and grounded to make the flighty and quirky aspects of her character believable. Ultimately, she doesn’t have enough dynamism to carry the film.
Geena Davis, making a rare recent screen appearance, shows us what real star quality is in about a minute of screen time. Portraying a video game executive with a feminist agenda, Davis shows how her character is a cynical hard-ass about getting her larger message out there, providing a nuance that most of the film lacks. I can only recommend World for those that indiscriminately feed off of feel-good fare.
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If you can stomach a small dose of genuine pathos in exchange for a higher quality film, then check out Enough Said. Written and directed by indie favorite Nicole Holofcener, Said follows the life of Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a middle-aged divorced masseuse whose monotonous life is interrupted by her daughter (Tracey Fairaway) leaving home to go to college and the meeting of two important people, her future best friend and client, an affluent and influential poet, Marianne (Holofcener muse Catherine Keener) and Albert (James Gandolfini), the first man to win her heart in a long time.
Said does not make a good first impression as the earlier passages have a sitcomish construction, sort of a third-rate copycat of The New Adventures of Old Christine or Seinfeld, with the punch lines or comic timing not as sharp. Stay with it as the film hits its stride in a big way when it establishes its unconventional triangle and how Eva eventually figures out that the ex about whom Marianne incessantly complains is actually Albert and how she slowly becomes more and more like Marianne in her relationship with him. The funny and sometimes strange romance between Albert and Eva is wonderful to watch as Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini have great screen chemistry.
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Julia Louis-Dreyfus, an iconic TV comidienne who’s made supporting performances in lackluster films, is impressive in her first film lead. She brings some of her neurotic and abrasive qualities of her sitcom persona, but also proves herself to be a compelling dramatic performer and convincingly shows vulnerability the final act where she tries to repair the damaged relationship with Albert and how she forms an inappropriate relationship with her daughter’s best friend (Tavi Gevinson). She makes for an emotionally flawed, but highly empathetic if not always likeable, character.
Apparently James Gandolfini, best known for his intensely dramatic work, had trepidation about taking on a romantic lead. Onscreen he seems completely at ease with the film’s lightly comic tone, bringing a kindness and gentleness interspersed with a droll delivery of some of the film’s funniest lines. In many ways he is the film’s heart as his character is unpretentious and comfortable with himself.
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Marianne’s lack of nuance hurts the comedy triangle. It’s hard to figure out why Eva is so awed by Marianne. Supposedly, she’s chic and sophisticated, but her costumes are frumpy, the dress she wore at the party looked like a beige potato sack and her hair is a mousy brown and unkempt. Her house is supposedly superior to Eva’s and allegedly slobby Albert’s; while perhaps a bit more colorful, all the sets had a certain sanitation and classiness. Keener, with an unsettlingly hoarse voice, is transparently a shrew, and had she had some dimension like Albert and Eva, it would have elevated the triangle and given Eva more motivation to go against Albert.
A few of the other supporting characters never really gel. Other than in scenes where they take Eva to the party or where they act as a counterweight to Eva’s belittlement of Albert on their double date, Eva’s friends Sarah (Toni Collette) and Will (Ben Falcone), a married couple who incessantly bicker, are mostly irritatingly superfluous intrusions.
Marcelo Zarvos’ overblown score is the single most abrasive element. It never fits in with the quiet low-key charm of the overall film and it often arrives at the most inopportune moments, inadvertently undermining the quirkiness of many of the scenes and giving it a glibness that isn’t on the screen.
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Holofcener, who has written and directed feature films for nearly twenty years, has carved out a sizable niche for herself. Yet Enough Said is the first work of hers that I’ve seen. Maybe because she is close to the age of her protagonists’ accounts for the authenticity she brings to the story. Admittedly, I never took the time to catch her other films as they always struck me as pedestrian looking, but I suppose I’ll Netflix some of them now.