It was writer-director Nicole Holofcener's good fortune, and her bad luck, to have snagged James Gandolfini for Enough Said, her comedy about two imminent empty-nesters dipping their toes into fresh romantic waters. Given his untimely death, the film is likely to be remembered less for its own modest virtues than as a last chance to say a bittersweet farewell to its star.
I say that as an ardent fan of one of America's greatest actors (and he was a star, though his acting never looked for that) and of Holofcener's movies. At her best, for instance in Lovely and Amazing, the writer and director has liberated women from the crass celluloid dichotomies — Madonna-whore, sweet thing-virago — in which they have languished forever.
The women in Holofcener's intensely personal vision, often played by Catherine Keener, are vinegary neurotics whose loose tongues range from waspish to shrewish. They work in marginal or bizarre occupations; in Lovely and Amazing, Keener hawked her miniature chairs around trendy boutiques. Their rough edges come beveled with grudging warmth and sturdy survival skills. They screw up regularly in work and love, let their friends down, come to terms by way of blurted apologies. They stagger valiantly through life — like, you know, real people.
A perfectly pleasant Saturday night out, Enough Said continues the mellowing trend Holofcener embarked on in Please Give, but maturity in life doesn't always make for better art. With one exception, the women in her new film lack edge. And either Keener or Toni Collette, both of whom have supporting roles here, would have made a more bracing lead than Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
As a divorced Los Angeles masseuse in limbo, Dreyfus looks like Holofcener, and she faithfully reproduces the director's jittery wit and charm. (A film-business brat, Holofcener was a diligent observer on the Woody Allen sets she hung around as a child.) But Dreyfus is, to her core, a television comedian; she delivers dialogue as a sequence of punch lines punctuated by breathless laughs.
That makes it hard to dig in with her as a complex boomer beset with anxiety about the upcoming departure of her daughter Ellen (Tracey Fairaway) for college. Worse yet, no one can get away with doing standup around Gandolfini, who acts from the inside out even when he's playing a cliche like Albert, a lollopy bear of a man with a vast collection of old TV shows.
It's not just the famous wolfish grin that endears. Albert, who takes a shine to Eva at a party, is kind, funny and decent; he's good in bed; and he's looking for a lively, loyal second wife who'll also take the sting out of his own daughter's departure for college. Big belly and all, Albert gives every indication of being a Mr. Right for a woman who's been run through the mill of boomer troubles.
After Eva's brief flurry of skittishness, the pair settle in. Yet they're such a lopsided couple that it's hard to buy them, even as an unlikely match made in heaven. (Or even in therapy.)
Or to believe that a litany of sour complaints about Albert from his former wife (Keener, struggling bravely with the limits of playing a walking plot device) has the power to lay waste to Eva's newfound happiness.
If the sum of Enough Said is less than its parts — and really, the midlife challenges here are pretty small potatoes — the movie does have some lovely grace notes that add up to an astute observation of the symbiosis of single mothers and their daughters.
In one wordless scene, Eva sits on the edge of her daughter's bed watching her sleep; in another Ellen climbs into bed with her mother. Later, college-bound Ellen stands stricken at the sight of her mother frantically bonding with her needy high school best friend (Tavi Gevinson), who's not leaving home.
All of which says far more about what's making Eva lose her cool than does a whole raft of speechifying about romantic jitters. And even these moments don't add up to any particular revelation.
But if Enough Said sheds little light on the dilemmas of late middle age, it makes a solid-enough platform from which to bid farewell to an actor who will be long remembered as TV's most brutal, adorable mobster, and who was enough of a pro to give his all to a middling film.