An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Nicole Holofcener and Kevin Smith: A Match Made in the '90s

In a funny way, Nicole Holofcener is sort of the distaff doppelganger of Kevin Smith. (Or, if you prefer, Kevin Smith is Holofcener's evil twin.) Hear me out: they both broke into the mid-90s indie scene with lo-fi Sundance hits (Smith's Clerks in '94, Holofcener's Walking and Talking in '96) that prized chatty eloquence over any kind of visual strategy, and they both rode the wave of Sundance buzz to ongoing success as mid-level indie filmmakers with healthy cult followings and critical respect. But to look at where these two oddly parallel directors are situated in 2010 is, as they say, instructive: one of them just made her best movie yet, which opened to glowing reviews, and the other one directed-for-hire an abysmal piece of buddy-cop dreck before getting thrown off an airplane for being grotesquely obese. The box office numbers of Cop Out may mean that Smith is laughing all the way to the lipo clinic, but by any measure of integrity Holofcener has emerged victorious. Good guys (and girls) win.

Film blogger Jordan Hoffman made an important point recently when he reminded us that the Kevin Smith phenomenon was entirely a case of being in the right place at the right time. Hoffman writes: "If [Smith were] just a little younger and made his first flick in the age of video and not film, none of us would have ever heard of him. He's a lucky dude." Arguably the same is true of Holofcener. If she were ten years younger and had made Walking and Talking in the VOD/DVD/Internet era of disappearing indie distributors, it seems unlikely that her film would've made much of a splash outside the festival circuit, the kind of movie that today is picked up by IFC for a Video On Demand release and a brief run in New York before heading to DVD semi-anonymity. But starting out when she did allowed Holofcener to find a comfortable niche in film culture, making small, sharply observed character studies and giving her BFF Catherine Keener one juicy role after another. The latest and greatest of these is the new Please Give, which feels more expansive, cohesive and poignant than anything else she's done—not to mention funnier.

Woody Allen's name is popping up in some reviews, which makes sense given the film's NYC location and focus on the comic possibilities of Rich People's Problems. But there is a complexity of character, empathy of spirit, and subtlety of theme here that never really existed in Woody's world. I was particularly impressed by the contrast between Keener's character, an unhappily wealthy woman who desperately wants to shoehorn some altruism into her life to keep her gnawing guilt at bay, and Rebecca Hall's character (the real heroine of the movie), who is so casually, naturally kind that she throws the other, basically likable characters into relief as the flawed, confused fuckups that they (and we) are. And the cranky grandma is awesome.

At this point, some critics would say, the only thing that Smith and Holofcener's films have in common substantively is that they use the camera more as a tool to record performances than an expressive instrument. But I'm not sure that's actually true anymore. There are some lovely shots in Please Give, like when Hall discovers her grandmother dead and the camera holds the shot long past when most directors would cut, Hall's face registering the shock and then staring blankly at the TV, bracing herself for the sad hours to come. Or the shot in the following scene, when the grandmother's dead body dissolves away, leaving an empty chair as a visual metaphor for loss. Or the penultimate shot of the film, a shallow-focus composition with Keener and husband Oliver Platt (who is so, so wonderful) in the blurry background and their newly elated daughter in the foreground, emphasizing the daughter's shift in mood and personality. So I'm pretty much not buying the line that Holofcener pays no attention to form or visuals. Meanwhile, Kevin Smith tried to break out of his own formally apathetic comfort zone by staging the usual array of chase scenes and shootouts in Cop Out, and I guess I have to give the guy points for effort, but where he tried for dynamism he achieved only headache-inducing clunkiness. The girl you brought to the party, Kev: dance with her. And no, that girl isn't Nicole Holofcener. She's at a much better party.

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