What Women Want

With less sisterhood and more ya ya, Nicole Holofcener's chick-flick levity is so so deceptive. Zipped inside that Pilates-wear hoodie lurks a crafty aesthete. In her 1996 debut, Walking and Talking, a light-touch charmer about looming marriage and its effect on a close female friendship, she achieved a dark current of intimacy with close-mic'd speech. This time, as a bolder Holofcener takes on the bugbear of inherited neuroses, her Sex and the City-style sibling-rival dramedy doubles as a meditation on the lovely clatter of everyday language and the amazing ways that it routinely fails us.

Spanning the time it takes for a tony, middle-aged mom (a bitchily fragile Brenda Blethyn) to get and recover from a botched lipo, Lovely & Amazingdrops in on her three daughters. Catherine Keener (now officially the Chris Eigeman of the Holofcener oeuvre) milks the role of 36-year-old former homecoming queen Michelle, an unhappily married beneficiary of Mom's jittery hostility and decorating jones (her ducks-with-bows busywork has an outsider-art flare—she makes tiny stick chairs that could be fetishes from Blair Witch, and painted scallop shells adorn her wall). Her younger sister, tentative actress Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), obsesses over her skinny upper arms, takes in lost dogs, and seeks out critical men. Sister three is adopted, overweight African American eight-year-old Annie (Raven Goodwin), and she's Holofcener's most sinister and sympathetic figure to date. Bringing the shame of difference into frank focus, Annie is by turns candid and inscrutable, a switch as jarring as her favorite pool prank: the dead man's float.

Everyone in this chintz-covered world is a little creepy. Holofcener is a master of the skewed conversation, and aside from being lacerating in its matter-of-fact cruelty, her hotly recorded banter mutates bland phrases into found poetry. As characters miscommunicate and flub opportunities to rescue one another or give verbal alms, the auteur's ear for the way fears and slights are telegraphed in the most blithe exchanges gives the film its lingering tug. Even if Michelle's ill-fated tryst with a high-schooler (the dorkily passionate Jake Gyllenhaal) is a contrived climax, the movie steers clear of the requisite violence that seems to be the coin of the domestic-drama realm.

Sucker punch: Gyllenhaal and Keener in Lovely & Amazing
photo: Lions Gate
Sucker punch: Gyllenhaal and Keener in Lovely & Amazing


The thudding basketball gender-swap Juwanna Mann (Warner Bros., in general release) would have benefited from Holofcener's dishiness, not to mention some regulation-size balls. Lazy, one-joke movies are like bad porn, rushing through the pizza delivery to get to the goods. But when the joke doesn't come off, that means problems. This flat run at a hip-hop Tootsie is so poorly paced you could fit all of Pootie Tang in between its punchlines. The snaps are winceable, and the slang ("I got game. I'm all that, dog!") is so past its sell-by date it's like they hired David Gergen to black up the script. As a Rodman-esque North Carolina NBA star who somehow gets over on his agent by playing in the WNBA, Miguel A. Núñez Jr.'s silk-bloused Jamal is infinitely more femme than butch Juwanna—who is supposedly "straight up from the country!" but who sounds more like Christopher Lowell. Maybe while they were splicing in the obligatory Jay Leno bit, they could have set Núñez up with some Petey Pablo. What show there is, is jacked by zooted-out Tommy Davidson. With his gold-grilled "filet mignot" greeze, he's the only one willing to have some fun up in this bzitch.

 
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