1 Hr., 31 Mins.
Lovely & Amazing
ook at the title long enough and you start to squint. Who here’s being described as “lovely and amazing”? An American Idol contestant who can’t sing to save her life but is so pretty and peppy that one of the judges can’t help but go for a meaningless compliment to avert attention from the truth? Someone’s grandmother? A rose garden warmed by the sun in mid-July? Initially, we might see a title like Lovely & Amazing (2001) and immediately look down upon it for being so pixy-stick sweet; a pair of blandly kind words atop a movie poster are kind of a bore.
But then we get an hour or so into the movie in question and suddenly this title bears meaning. We find ourselves in the hospital room of Jane (Brenda Blethyn), a middle-aged woman who’s just gotten liposuction. With her is her daughter Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), who’s an actress and hates how she looks.
Per usual, Elizabeth frets about how turned off she is by her appearance. Why does perfection so elude her? Jane shakes her head; in her mind, Elizabeth is perfect. “I think you’re lovely and amazing,” she says. But Elizabeth doesn’t listen. Here she is, not skinny enough, not sexy enough, sitting next to a mother who despises her own body so much that she’s getting a large amount of it surgically removed.
Yet from the moment we hear Jane’s retort, everything about the movie becomes clear: written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, it is a wonderful film about self-esteem and the various insecurities faced by women on the daily. About how there will always someone who will always find you lovely and amazing, even if you aren’t inclined to think such about yourself.
The four women at the center of Lovely & Amazing comprise the Marks clan, neurotic and dysfunctional. The matriarch is Jane, who in her older years has adopted a black 8-year-old named Annie (Raven Goodwin) who’s grown to dislike the color of her skin. Her middle daughter is Elizabeth, a screen performer on the cusp of stardom who can’t get over her self-doubts. Her oldest is Michelle (Catherine Keener), a former homecoming queen who’s unemployed, stuck in an unhappy marriage, and prone to nastiness that makes her appear cold and brittle.
Holofcener voyeuristically watches these characters move about their lives for what feels like a handful of weeks, probing what’s special about these women just as much as she focuses on what makes them tick, on how they’re perceived by others. And we notice that they’re all contradictory, just as anyone in real life is.
Jane is nurturing and sweet, but her obsession with body image has had a negative impact on her daughters, especially Elizabeth and Annie. Elizabeth is smart and talented, but her perpetual dissatisfaction with herself has begun to hinder her potential. (In one of the film’s most crushing scenes, she stands before a lover [Dermot Mulroney] nude, demanding he point out her flaws.) Annie is assertive and displays a boldness that’ll likely get her far in life, but her inability to completely celebrate her identity has become something of a handicap. And Michelle is self-aware and refreshingly honest, but she’s also terrible at managing herself; consider that late in the film she has an affair with a beady-eyed 17-year-old (Jake Gyllenhaal) just because she likes being the center of attention and hasn’t gotten a lick of genuine affection for so long.
Holofcener’s understanding of her women buttresses Lovely & Amazing’s emotional power. In so many movies made with the female demographic predominantly in mind – see the rom-com as perfected in the mid-to-late 1990s – we’re introduced to characters who feel more like romanticized creations than reflections of the everyday. But Holofcener isn’t interested in such flowery characterizations. What she finds interesting are individuals who cannot be easily figured out. Characters who can be lovable but also maddening. I do too. A