Enough Said

3 stars
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What works best about "Enough Said" is that it gives two of our favorite television stars of the last 20 years new notes to play, allowing us to appreciate them a little more fully than we did before. And with the sudden, recent passing of James Gandolfini, its male romantic lead, the result is so much more bittersweet than the movie could have ever possibly intended.

This must have come as a refreshing acting assignment for Gandolfini. In a career built on brooding as Tony Soprano as well as his other notable film performances, here he is without the dark cloud above him, a regular guy named Albert with a pretty neat job at a California library archive where old television shows go to be digitally preserved and enjoyed by patrons.

Our story centers on Eva, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus--not seen enough in the movies--in what begins as a variation of her Elaine Benes, only transplanted to a California suburb where she works as a masseuse, clumsily lugging her table around town. At a soiree one evening with bestie Sarah (Toni Collette), she makes a new client out of famous poet Marianne (Catherine Keener) and is introduced later to Albert.

Our masseuse is taken with the poet, whose cozy, manicured Spanish-style house she immediately envies. "Can I live here?", Eva says. While an unlikely friendship begins to develop between the two canyon ladies (Marianne brags that she's good friends with Joni Mitchell, don't ya know) Eva and Albert begin to court and spark.

Each of them middle-aged divorcees with college-bound daughters about to make them empty-nesters, Eva and Albert greet their lives with an appropriate mixture of anxiety tempered with the newfound possibility of romance. I loved watching their first date unfold. Gene Siskel, and then later Roger Ebert, who carried on the tradition, would ask, "Is this movie as interesting as a documentary of the same actors having lunch?". Watching Albert and Eva across a table from each other, engaged in colorful banter at dinner, the answer is a resounding yes to their scenes.

Though their courtship is scripted, it feels totally spontaneous and I think that's because Gandolfini and Louis-Dreyfus are on the same page with backgrounds in shooting television scripts. Those require actors to work fast, adapt to sudden script changes, while filling every beat with action. There's a rat-a-tat-tat and a musicality to their back-and-forth that is wholly satisfying to watch in even the smallest of moments, like that sequence that finds Eva at Albert's place for brunch.

Between our two leads dipping their feet back into the dating pool and the life-changes that await them in their empty homes, that's enough material for a sparkling contemporary adult dramedy, at least for my own tastes. But just then a plot begins to develop involving Marianne, the nature of which I will not reveal here. What I will report is that the development is built on a total contrivance, and even though it is sold well enough that I believed it could happen (crazier things have indeed happened in life), it is conflict for conflict's sake, the kind of stuff that feels more appropriate to high school comedies.

Catherine Keener is one of my favorite actors, but I think this would have been a better film without her subplot. Our two leads deserve to discover things about each other the way real adults in this situation might. Julia Louis-Dreyfus brings natural intelligence and wicked comic timing to a role that allows her dramatic moments for a change, while Gandolfini's Albert wins all of our sympathy in his lightest, gentlest performance. At the onset, Eva isn't sure of Albert as a love interest; but by the halfway point of this story, we're not sure if she's good enough for our guy, who is an imperfect man, but a refreshingly unpretentious one in a movie that deals with superficiality and judgment.

After coming back to the east coast in 2010 with the sharp, edgy dramedy "Please Give", writer-director Nicole Holofcener returns to the kind of suburban California world we recognize from her 2001 effort "Lovely & Amazing" (her very best film) and 2006's "Friends With Money". To Holofcener's credit, she moves things along with such economy and skill that I can forgive her lapse into that wrongheaded film school reasoning that requires "conflict" to be inserted into stories from the outside in instead of the other way around. But it makes this film a little less edgier than her best ones.

Albert and Eva are rounding 50 and they're single. They've got the faces they deserve. The kids are flying the coop into an uncertain and fleeting world. You can get busy livin' or get busy dyin', I think the saying went. That's all the conflict you need. Nuff said.

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