lovely & amazing (2002)


director: nicole holofcener

catherine keener, brenda blethyn, emily mortimer

There's a scene in Nicole Holofcener's Lovely & Amazing that should stick in your mind for days if you've ever wondered how Hollywood became the land of wraithlike, size zero women. It's probably the most disturbing and unerotic nude scene put on film, and a peculiar kind of testament to Emily Mortimer, the young actress who allows herself to be its object.

Holofcener, a t.v. director ("Sex & The City", "Gilmore Girls"), wrote and directed this story of three women: Brenda Blethyn is Jane Marks, a very comfortably off divorcee whose self-image problems have infected her two daughters and have begun to affect Annie, her youngest daughter, a little black girl (Raven Goodwin) who Jane has adopted for reasons we begin to regard with uneasiness as we get to know her family.

Jane goes into the hospital for liposuction, a routine operation (it's sad to have to say that, somehow) that ends up putting her in a near-coma. It's a bad week for the Marks women, it seems. Michelle (Catherine Keener) has taken a job at a one-hour photo shop to placate her exasperated husband, and Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) has broken up with a boyfriend who was unable to sympathize with the insecurities and anxieties of a struggling actor.

It's easy to dismiss these men as unsupportive bastards, but frankly, it's hard not to see things from their perspectives. As played by Mortimer and especially Keener, an actress with a frighteningly sure touch with bitchy, unpleasant women (see Being John Malkovich and Your Friends and Neighbours), the Marks women are spectacularly, even tragically self-involved, with "issues", as they say, that comprise most of their personalities.

While Keener tentatively begins an affair with her infatuated teenage boss (Jake Gyllenhaal, a young actor with lots of promise, judging by this role alone), Mortimer starts one with a hunky but vapid movie star (Dermot Mulroney) and, in a painful moment of enlightened self-doubt, begs him to critique her body, standing nude at the end of his bed. He reluctantly agrees, but ends up getting into it, and enumerates minor flaws and imperfections with analytical gusto, somehow managing not to mention the single most obvious thing about Mortimer's body: she's painfully, worryingly thin, with the body that her mother has nearly killed herself trying to get through surgery. The way Mortimer shyly thanks him at the end of his critique is probably the most heartbreaking moment of the film.

But not quite. Little Annie, surrounded by this trio of unhappy women, has started to hate her own hair, skin, and weight, eight years old and already infected with consuming neuroses that effectively guarantees a future as miserable as her mother and sisters. The qualified, bittersweet happy ending that Holofcener gives the women is particularly uneasy - it's hard to imagine that the Marks women have learned much except humiliation, and difficult to see how their lives will improve after the credits roll. They have not, to coin a phrase, come a long way, baby.