Producers: Stefanie Azpiazu, Anthony Bregman, Nicole Holofcener and Julia Louis-Dreyfus Director: Nicole Holofcener Screenplay: Nicole Holofcener Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Menzies, Michaela Watkins, Arian Moayed, Owen Teague, Jeannie Berlin, Amber Tamblyn, David Cross, Zach Cherry, Sarah Steele, Bryan Reynoso, Karolena Greenidge, Doug Moe, Lynnsey Lewis, Kelsey Carthew, Claudia Robinson, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Kenneth Tigar, Sunita Mani, Deniz Akdeniz and Clara Wong Distributor: A24
Nicole Holofcener’s first film since 2013’s “Enough Said” (she’s done a good deal of TV in the interval) is a comedy-drama about the fragility of relationships that, like all her earlier movies, is relatively slight but droll and moderately amusing.
It reunites her with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the star of the earlier film, who here plays Beth, a NYC writing teacher whose only published book, a memoir, is little read, even by her small class of students, whose work she enthuses over—as she does practically everything on the surface, though when alone her insecurities come to the fore (there’s a clever moment set in a bookstore, where she moves a copy of her memoir from the shelf to a prominent place on a display table).
Beth’s been working on a novel for years, and the only person she’s regularly shared the draft with is her husband Don (Tobias Menzies), who’s repeatedly assured her he thinks it’s great. Indeed, when her agent (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) finally reads it and suggests it needs further work, he dismisses the idea, urging her to take it to another, more supportive one (Deniz Akdeniz). In reality, though, he doesn’t like the book, and when Beth overhears him telling that to her brother-in-law Mark (Arian Moayed), she’s shattered. What appeared a perfect marriage has suddenly been broken, perhaps irretrievably, by what seems a well-intentioned act of spousal dishonesty.
The reason is that ultimately Beth defines herself by her work, a problem that seems pretty prevalent in the family. Don spends his time in the office disappointing most of his patients, and doubting whether he’s doing them any good, not without reason: one of them, burly Jim (Zach Cherry), mutters that Don’s worthless as he departs a session, and a bickering couple (Amber Tamblyn and David Cross) he’s been treating for years get so upset with their lack of progress that they demand a refund of over thirty thousand dollars.
Then there’s Beth and Don’s son Elliott (Owen Teague), who’s working at a marijuana shop while writing his first play. He moves back in with them when his girlfriend dumps him, and confesses that he’s always felt like something of an outsider in the family dynamic, since his parents share everything with one another but not him. He also complains that their habit of constantly showering him with undeserved praise as a kid when he was just average stunted his personality. Need we add that he’s also uncertain of his writing talent?
Add to the mix Mark, an aspiring actor who’s crushed when he’s fired from his first real part on the stage and considers giving up his ambitions altogether, and his wife Sarah (Michaela Watkins), Beth’s sister, an interior decorator who’s constantly trying to cater to the tastes of unpredictable clients like Ali (Clara Wong) and clearly distressed by the inability to satisfy them. One does get a hint about the cause of the sisters’ insecurities from their interaction with their hardboiled mother Georgia (Jeannie Berlin), whose reaction when they ask her for old clothes to give away to the homeless (the refrain of “doing things for others” common in Holofcener’s satirical toolbox) is sharp; she responds equally abrasively to the announcement of her doctor (Sunita Mani) that she’ll be adding an annual charge just to keep patients on her rolls.
Holofcener’s script is, as usual, perceptive but mildly sitcomish, touching on serious subjects like skewered self-perception and easily bruised egos but, rather than treating them in depth, using them for gentle ribbing. The picture doesn’t aim for big laughs, but the collage of smartly observed moments provides a steady stream of chuckles, abetted by the talented ensemble to whom she gives rather free rein as director. Louis-Dreyfus responds with a performance that stops just short of mugging, which might also be said of Tamblyn and Cross as the couple whose passive-aggressive tendencies seem calibrated to drive one another to distraction—as well as anybody unlucky enough to have to deal with them. Berlin will be another crowd-pleaser as a senior set in her ways, but everyone down to the bit players does a respectable job. The film doesn’t turn NYC into a beauty spot, but the behind-the-camera work—from production designer Sally Levi, costumer Chloe Karmin, cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron, editor Alisa Lepselter and composer Michael Andrews—is agreeable enough.
That’s a description that might be applied to the film as a whole, which finds a way not to be too hard on characters who find it difficult to appreciate the little bubble of comfort and privilege that they inhabit, and that most people would envy.