Catherine Keener and Emily Mortimer in Lovely & Amazing (2001)



(director/writer: Nicole Holofcener; cinematographer: Harlan Bosmajian; editor: Rob Frazen; music: Craig Richey; cast: Catherine Keener (Michelle Marks), Brenda Blethyn (Jane Marks), Emily Mortimer (Elizabeth Marks), Raven Goodwin (Annie Marks), James LeGros (Paul), Jake Gyllenhaal (Jordan), Clark Gregg (Bill), Dermot Mulroney (Kevin), Aunjanue Ellis (Lorraine), Michael Nouri (Dr. Crane), Christine Mourad (Cindy), Lee Garlington (Jordan’s Mom), Ashlynn Rose (Maddy), Dreya Weber (Donna); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Anthony Bregman/Ted Hope/Eric d’Arbeloff; Lions Gate Films; 2001)

“This humorous probe into the lives of four members of an unusual family hits all the right body spots.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Indie director and writer Nicole Holofcener’s (“Walking and Talking“) West Coast chick-flick is more amazing than lovely, and more realistic than most such attempts to dramatize feminine insecurity problems that cause ruin to their personal relationships. It is also quite smartly done and very funny in a way that spares no one’s feelings–everyone is both equally creepy as well as capable of being warm-hearted. This humorous probe into the lives of four members of an unusual family hits all the right body spots. Jane Marks (Brenda Blethyn) is the skittish, divorced, overweight, matriarch of a trio of capricious daughters. Her two daughters by birth, the younger thirtysomething Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) and the 36-year-old Michelle (Catherine Keener), are unable to function without feeling malcontent over their psychological hangups.

Elizabeth is unmarried and in an unworkable relationship with her insensitive nature writer boyfriend Paul (LeGros). It can’t work because he offers her no encouragement in her acting career and fails to compliment her looks, and because of that she holds back her affection for him. She’s a struggling actress who can only get bit parts, and has a sour-puss agent (Mourad) who offers her little encouragement. Overly concerned about her looks, she acts insecure and neurotic. She gets a great deal of personal satisfaction by taking home stray dogs and nursing them back to health.

Michelle, a former homecoming queen, is in a loveless marriage with the dull installer of personalized stereo systems for the rich, Bill, who nags her for being worthless as an artist and not having a paying job to contribute to the household expenses. But she’s also to blame for their meaningless marriage, as she fails to offer him her love. Michelle, despite having an adolescent daughter Maddy, still hasn’t grown up. She is very comfortable watching cartoons at home and also spends her day making miniature dollhouse chairs from twigs, art objects she can’t sell to gift shops because it seems like something a child would make in an Arts and Crafts class. She also has an ‘anger management’ problem and handles rejection by telling everyone who displeases her to f*ck off. Jane, feeling lonely after too many years of neglect from her ex-husband and the absence of any man in her current life, has adopted an 8-year-old African-American “crack baby” named Annie (Raven Goodwin), who is an overeater and has grown obese (following in the footsteps of her self-indulgent mom). She is gifted in making wisecracks, possessing an unflinching honesty, getting what she wants, speaking her mind, and swimming underwater for long periods in a deadman’s float to scare everyone into thinking that she’s drowned. She wonders why she’s black and the rest of her family is white. Mom got her a black Big Sister (Ellis), so she can have someone from her own race to identify with. The Big Sister tells her, after hearing her make a racist joke about blacks, that you’re worst off than anyone else in that unhappy family because you’re black. An outsider would probably judge the family as dysfunctional, except on closer inspection the family is certainly flawed but it is also in an odd way a loving one.

Everyone in this insecure family is disappointed about their life. Jane goes through a liposuction to get rid of unwanted fat from her waist, as she thinks by taking off 10 pounds it will bring her happiness because she will be more attractive. She fantasizes that the doctor (Nouri) is flirting with her, when he’s actually all business and is an endless communicator of feel-good messages. Elizabeth tries out for a hot romantic part with a handsome but egotistical big showbiz star, Kevin (Dermot Mulroney). He rejects her for the part because she’s not sexy enough and then ends up not only sleeping with her but is asked to honestly critique her while she stands in the nude in front of him. Though reluctant, at first, he then warms up to the challenge and with a callous disregard for her feelings goes to town rating her body parts. He tells her she has nice hips but one breast is larger than the other, that her teeth are yellow, and upon further coaxing agrees with her distorted evaluation that her upper arms are flabby. This physical rejection of her worth might be just as inane as the reason she didn’t get the part (a comment on Hollywood’s casting couch). That was one bizarre but memorable scene. The slender and attractive woman who might not have the perfect bod, nevertheless still bravely puts herself on display. It’s a part that put her on the firing line and she deserves all the kudos one can offer for her uninhibited performance that becomes the highlight of the film.

Michelle, out of desperation and on an impulse, takes a minimum wage job in a one-hour photo store, where her boss is the owner’s son — 17-year-old Jordan (Gyllenhaal). He has a crush on her and she can’t resist sleeping with him. This leads to her arrest on a statutory rape charge, as mom catches them in the car together.

It is through Annie that the three self-absorbed women are given a chance to see who they are, what their potential is, and if they are worth saving. This relationship blossoms when complications develop after the $10,000 uninsured vanity operation causes Jane to remain hospitalized with a bacterial infection. First Michelle acts as surrogate mother to Annie and then Elizabeth. All the Marks’ might be basket-cases, but they are also all intelligent, generous, lovable and, most importantly, real females who are not characterized in some Hollywoodish formulaic way. This intelligent and witty film gets its title when Jane tells Elizabeth that you are “Lovely and Amazing.” How sweet and true that is, even if Elizabeth is too insecure to believe that. If Lovely & Amazing has any faults (and like its protagonists it sure does), it is because the crisp dialogue at times feels too rehearsed as if it were sitcom stuff. But the film’s faults easily give way to the pleasures of seeing a chick-flick that is not afraid to let the chips fall where they may, as it doesn’t play the blame game. It shows that it could be either the man or woman’s fault for a poor relationship, or both.