Film Review: Enough Said

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini make an intriguing romantic pair in this gentle, character-driven comedy-drama from Nicole Holofcener.

Nicole Holofcener’s strength as a writer-director is also perhaps her box-office weakness. Her comedy-dramas never opt for easy, comforting laughs but are always rooted in realistic, messy human behavior. It’s an admirable standard she maintains, but one that has probably prevented her breakout to greater recognition. Enough Said, her fifth feature in a 17-year career, is another of those modest but rewarding character studies, this time sparked by the intriguing matchup of two TV icons.

Enough Said would be bittersweet even without the tragedy that shadows it: the sudden death of “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini, here given his first role as a romantic leading man. He’s paired with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the immortal Elaine Benes of “Seinfeld,” in her first lead role in a motion picture. The chemistry of this unlikely pair is one of the chief pleasures of the film, however sad the real-life undercurrent of mortality.

Holofcener has devised a situation that would seem ideal for a madcap farce. Divorced mother and masseuse Eva (Louis-Dreyfus) is barely coping with the fact that her only daughter is about to leave for college. At a party, she separately encounters two people who will change her life: Marianne (Catherine Keener), a stylish, smart and self-assured poet, and Albert (Gandolfini), a divorced man also facing the prospect of his teenage daughter’s university departure. Eva not only takes on Marianne as a new massage client, but enters a close friendship with the glamorous author. Meanwhile, Albert asks Eva on a date and the two experience a growing attraction. Each in their way fills a void in Eva’s life, but then Eva makes a startling discovery: Albert is Marianne’s ex-husband, the man she is constantly vilifying as a disastrous marriage partner.

Rather than tell Albert or Eva she knows their ex-spouse, the highly vulnerable Eva tries to keep her relationships separate and secret. But as Marianne catalogs Albert’s faults, Eva finds herself growing hyperaware of his quirks like his clumsiness in bed and his habit of picking at his guacamole. “She’s like a human Trip Advisor!” Eva confides in her friend Sarah (Toni Collette). Eva and Albert’s romance hits a rough patch, and then the inevitable happens as Eva’s two worlds of love and friendship collide.

As evidenced from her years on “Seinfeld” and her two subsequent hit TV series, few comic actresses are as skilled at mining the potential of awkward situations as Louis-Dreyfus, and the role of Eva seems tailor-made for her talents. Like the often-hapless Elaine, Eva falls into a trap of her own making, and Louis-Dreyfus makes her emotional neediness credible enough that we believe her reckless attempt to juggle her relationships. Gandolfini, meanwhile, brings a subtle soulfulness and warmth to Albert that fully persuades us of the charm and sexiness of this overweight, untraditional romantic lead. It’s a new direction for him, and the lost potential is painful to contemplate.

Keener, who has appeared in all four of Holofcener’s previous features, from 1996’s Walking and Talking to 2010’s Please Give, is also excellent as the bohemian, rather egotistical Marianne, her vibrant presence softening our annoyance with her constant ragging of her ex. The talented Collette is underused here, but pairs nicely with Louis-Dreyfus.

Holofcener also includes a subplot involving a third new presence in Eva’s life: Chloe (Tavi Gevinson), the unmoored best friend of her daughter Ellen (Tracey Fairaway), who spends more and more time with Eva and unwittingly becomes like a replacement daughter to her. Gevinson, a teen fashion icon, is especially winning in her debut feature.

Moviegoers should approach Enough Said expecting not a laugh-out-loud comedy but something more smile-inducing, poignant, relatable and sometimes somber. And the one-time-only pairing of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini should be reward enough.