||"Lovely and Amazing," unhappily, is neither. The sophomore venture from writer-director Nicole Holofcener ("Walking and Talking") is another study of relationships among women; while the former picture concentrated on the mixture of camaraderie and jealousy that existed between two friends, however, the canvas is here expanded to three sisters--two natural and one adopted--and their mother. As was the case with her debut feature, there are moments of insight and amusement in "Lovely and Amazing," but too often the narrative turns are excessively strained and contrived. The talented cast, moreover, is encouraged to exaggerate things--a tendency that, especially when combined with the periodic weakness of the writing, gives the picture a shrill, somewhat frantic tone.
The major figures are Jane Marks (Brenda Blethyn) and her daughters Michelle (Catherine Keener), a housewife who considers herself an artist, and Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), an aspiring actress; to the trio has been added Annie (Raven Goodwin), an eight-year old African-American whom Jane has adopted. Thematically the script links them all by concentrating on their common obsession with self-image. Jane is going into the hospital for liposuction conducted by Dr. Crane (Michael Nouri)--an operation that turns out far more dangerous than advertised. Meanwhile Michelle breaks up with her husband and, after unsuccessfully trying to peddle her odd artwork, takes a menial job at a quick-photo shop, where the boss' teen son Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes infatuated with her--attention she finds oddly comforting. At the same time Elizabeth suffers a double loss. She splits with her long-time boyfriend Paul (James Le Gros), and she fails to get a job in a film against hunky star Kevin McCabe (Dermot Mulroney) on the grounds that she's not sufficiently sexy--a characterization she suspects may be accurate, and about which she queries McCabe when they have a romantic tryst. And Annie grows increasingly concerned with her appearance, radically altering her hairstyle without permission.
This is obviously a quartet of women with problems of what nowadays is called self-esteem, and if they were more subtly etched their story might be extraordinarily revealing and touching. Unfortunately Holofcener draws them with a frequently heavy hand, and she encourages her stars--especially Keener and Blethyn, talented as they both are--to come on too strong. Keener, for instance, has a scene with Mortimer at a party in which Michelle becomes a strident caricature; and at times Blethyn is so flamboyant that she wouldn't be out of place among the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Fortunately Mortimer and Goodwin are more restrained, and in any event the excesses aren't enough to turn the characters into unlikable stereotypes. They're just not likable enough.
In fact, curiously the most intriguing figures in this female-centered picture are the men, who, though they circle the periphery of the narrative, are more convincingly drawn and played. Mulroney doesn't fall into the trap of making the film star an arrogant bastard, and Le Gros is offhandedly charming in a short role. Best of all is Gyllenhaal, who shows a perfect combination of awkwardness and earnestness as Jordan. With "Donnie Darko" and now this, he's transcended the more straightforward part he played in "October Sky" to show remarkable range. (We'll be nice and just consign "Bubble Boy" to the trash heap of misguided choices.)
"Lovely and Amazing" isn't a dismal film. It has strokes of perception and some amusing touches. With crisper writing and sharper direction it could have been a real winner. As it is, though, it's an also-ran.