Walking and Talking May 25, 2016
The thing I like best about Walking and Talking is the way it refuses to stoop to sugarcoating. As its action involves the romantic misadventures of a pair of successful women, it has the potential to be a vacuous display of midlife crises in sitcom packaging. But it sidesteps Friends saccharinity through unaffected writing and performances that startlingly capture the imperfections of its characters; it’s dramedy without undeserved, feel-good, twists.
Movies akin to this one don’t take long to win me over. As a stan of the works of Robert Altman and John Cassavetes, I’m more easily seduced by films that find their brilliance by observing its characters, by allowing them to live instead of throwing dramatic curveballs in their faces to increase our enjoyment. As it’s written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, an independent film superstar renowned for her ability to find frothy diversion within the pains of life, we expect Walking and Talking to be a character study of sympathy and humor, not judgment and cynicism. And our expectations come to fruition. The movie is a preeminent one in Holofcener’s dependable career.
Her muse, the lovely Catherine Keener, stars as Amelia, a thirty-something in turmoil. A Manhattanite with a good job and a good life, she’s been steadily happy for most of her adult life — having always had her best friend, Laura (Anne Heche), by her side, her personal obstacles have never proved to be much shattering because they’ve had each other. But Laura’s getting married to Frank (Todd Field), with whom she spends much of her time. Single and increasingly self-conscious about her own love life, Amelia’s descent into an existential crisis arrives long before she ever thought she’d have one. Suddenly, things aren’t the way they’ve always been.
Laura’s doubts are highlighted in Walking and Talking, too — she’s nervous about her engagement, having fantasies about sleeping with patients (she’s a therapist) and getting into fights with Frank to indulge her anxieties — but the film is at its most glowing when preoccupied with Amelia, a diamond of a female lead. As it’s one of the premier roles given to Keener, who is usually cast in roles that require her to be a witty, sexy love interest, or a sardonically shrill quasi-villainess, Amelia is a woman we can’t stop watching. We almost like seeing her make bad decisions; Holofcener makes her fascinatingly flawed, Keener providing the spirited, self-loathing charisma.
She’s a hell of a character, and it’s her relationships with those closest to her that characterize her as a force of nature, a catch who’s never found a guy more because of luck and not because of a supercilious personality (though speaking her mind isn’t unlikely). Amelia’s good friends with her last boyfriend (Liev Schreiber), a man matching in personality who complains to her of his own romantic entanglements, and she’s buddies with Frank. Among the greatest components of the film, too, is her brief fling with Bill (a scene-stealing Kevin Corrigan), a video store clerk she sorta kinda dates out of pity, actually ends up liking, and sleeps with. A stupid mistake ends their relationship, and that sets off some of the movie’s most acidic (and funny) moments.
But what we take away most from Walking and Talking, in addition to its somehow uplifting aftertaste, is Holofcener’s extraordinary ability to sketch three-dimensional characters without staginess or disparaging undertones. Maybe they all somehow piece together to create a cinematic version of herself. No matter: Walking and Talking is a slice-of-life delicacy that turns malaise into intelligent entertainment. B+