The San Diego International Film Festival always lands great films for its program and for their monthly Film Insider Series. They scored big with the latest from Nicole Holofcener. I think she’s one of the best in the business, but it bugs me that she doesn’t do more films (only two in the last 10 years). Her film Please Give made my Top 10 in 2010. It was five years ago that her film, Can You Forgive Me? (Melissa McCarthy) earned multiple Oscar nominations. James Gandolfini was lucky enough to have had his last film be in Holofcener’s Enough Said. So were Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and Michaela Watkins (one of the most underrated comedic actresses working today, who you can also see in Paint). The women play sisters in this. And it’s so refreshing to have a comedy that actually has lots and lots of laughs. It’s also refreshing to have a story about a long-married couple who are in a fight – and it doesn’t involve infidelity. Although the trailers spoil what the fight is about, I won’t, but will give you an example. Imagine your wife asks you if her butt looks fat in a certain outfit and you tell her it doesn’t, but instead say she looks gorgeous. Then when you’re having your fantasy football draft in the garage with all the guys, you let it slip that your wife asked you that question, and you go on and on about the 50 pounds she’s gained since you’ve been married for decades, and how her butt looks horrible in every outfit she wears, and that you want to suggest she start going to play racquetball with you. The problem is, you didn’t see that your wife had opened the door to ask you if she should bring out any appetizers or more beer for the fellas; and she heard everything you said about her butt [side note, to avoid a fight with my wife: this scenario did not happen with me. Her butt looks fantastic. Just because I play racquetball and fantasy football, that was all merely an example].
Now to stick with that scenario, I’ve actually been the person that has told the person the truth at times. Doesn’t always work in my favor, and it’s not that I’m some “honesty is the best policy” type of guy. I was once paid a large amount of money to edit someone’s book and when they’d ask me what I thought, I’d tell them all the problems with it and even mentioned how bad of a storyteller he was in certain chapters. Not everyone can do that, and this movie makes a strong case for why it’s sometimes best to tell white lies (and why it’s probably better to just keep those to yourself).
I’ve been on the opposite end of that. I was living with a woman, and she and all her friends insisted I should be a stand-up comedian. So I spent a weekend writing material, and had an hour's worth. I read it to her and her two friends. The friends were laughing sporadically, but not as much as I hoped they would. My girlfriend never laughed, but had a slight smile on her face the whole time. When I finished she said, “I guess I was wrong, you can’t be a stand-up comedian.”
With that I laughed, and asked what was wrong. She said, “Well, everything you said was slightly amusing. And you had many takes on things that almost made me laugh, but…nothing that ever made me laugh. I want a comedian to actually make me laugh.”
My feelings weren’t hurt. My ego just twisted things around in my brain to convince myself I’m funnier when writing, or telling a specific story, as opposed to writing jokes with punchlines.
But enough about me and my unfunniness, back to the very funny movie. The trailers did a terrific job setting up this terrific premise, and I know that would be thought provoking stuff. What I didn’t realize was just how friggin’ great this picture would be. The crowd at the Insider Film Series couldn’t stop laughing, and I was right there with them.
I was recently on a radio show discussing movies, and brought up how great a romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally was. I said I was mad when I found out all the couples shown in the movie talking about their relationships were actors and not real couples. This had the opposite. A comedian/actor I dig named David Cross, plays an angry man in therapy, with his real life wife Amber Tamblyn (whose dad Russ played Riff in West Side Story, and whose uncle is the talented Larry Tamblyn of the underrated band The Standells…but I digress). Watching them fight is just hysterical. There are a few other people in the therapy sessions that are also interesting to watch.
Tobias Menzies plays the psychiatrist, and in one of the many subtle moves that makes Holofcener a genius writer – you think about his character later and think – dude, you’re not the best at your job, so perhaps you should worry more about that than your wife’s writing.
On the subject of the cast and Holofcener’s brilliance, let’s address their son. He’s played by Owen Teague, who was great in Montana Story, and blew me away in To Leslie last year, coping with an alcoholic mom. In this, he’s just as frustrated with his mom. She nags him about working at the cannabis shop and how hasn’t finished the play he’s writing. He also feels left out when his parents are so affectionate with each other. Another screenwriter would have made that kid such a jerk we wouldn’t be able to sympathize with him. Another screenwriter would have also screwed up the scenes where Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is teaching a writing class. They’d go for cheap laughs, having students that were completely clueless (I do think her class should have had more students, and it would have still conveyed the same thing; kind of like when Jeff Daniels thinks he is this hotshot writer lecturing a college class in The Squid and the Whale, and when the camera shows the crowd, there were only about 35 students scattered about the huge hall).
Jeannie Berlin has a few great scenes as the mom, who wants to knock her daughter’s memoir as well as the charity work her two daughters do. Listening to her get confused between TCM and TMZ is hysterical, as is everything she says and does.
Michaela Watkins plays Sarah, Beth’s sister, and watching those two together is fun, as it is watching her with husband Mark (Arian Moayed), who’s a struggling actor. The fact that he’s obsessed with good quality socks cracked me up endlessly.
I read somewhere that Holofcener’s mom worked as a set decorator on some Woody Allen movies and her stepfather produced many of his films. While some might compare this story of New Yorkers to Allen, I think it’s more like a hipper Seinfeld episode (in fact, Seinfeld once had something similar, when Jerry was dating a woman who didn’t think he was a funny comedian).
All the characters had great chemistry with each other, whether that was the sisters, or the couples. It was refreshing that these felt like real people we could relate to, and even if they have moments of narcissism, you still like them.
And aside from being so highly entertaining, it’s thought provoking. I thought about how I bought my wife earrings that she loved. I then thought I had a knack for earrings. I ended up buying her about 8 pairs before she told me she only liked that first pair I got her. I was a tad hurt, but told her I was glad she said something. I promptly gave all the earrings to my friend Veronika and her daughter. No harm, no foul. And I moved on to buying her other gifts she didn’t care for.
Other people might not have been able to handle being told they bought a bad gift, and we’ve all been in, or seen, a scenario like this play out. It’s one of many reasons that this film is a treat.
When I was doing movie reviews for KGO in San Francisco, one of the show hosts asked me after I was praising Hell or High Water in 2016, “This must be the first movie you’ve given 5 stars to this year.”
I responded, “Close. It got 4 ½ stars.”
He pressed me about the last time I had given 5 stars to a movie. It was years earlier. Luckily for me, this is the second movie this year I’m giving 5 stars to. So if you’re tired of super heroes, horror, and explosions, this is for you.
One last side note: I’ve come up with a stat that shows 78% of all movies have a barfing scene. Either Holocfener has noticed the same thing I have about the amount of vomit, or she was just being funny, when she had Beth almost throw up. Well played, ma’am.
5 stars !