Girlfriend's Gotta Have It

           CONTRARY TO ITS press kit, the romantic comedy Walking and Talking wasn't based on the journal entries of Nicole Holofcener, the thirtysomething Columbia film school grad who wrote and directed it as her first feature. "If you saw my diary," Holofcener confesses on the phone from New York, "you'd be asleep in 10 minutes."

           Still, Walking and Talking, which charts the rift between two women in their late 20s after one of them gets engaged, was directly inspired by the filmmaker's own fear of losing her best friend to a guy, a friend who wasn't crazy about the fact that her private life had ended up as a screenplay. "When she read the first draft, she freaked out a bit," Holofcener says. "There were a lot of obvious things taken from her own story, and she wasn't happy about that. But in later drafts, as the characters evolved into fiction, the script lost that embarrassingly personal quality." What it gained was a more archetypal insight into the dynamics of female friendship, proven by the fact that many women viewers at the Sundance Film Festival last January thanked the director for telling their story.

           The male response at Sundance was, well, another story. "The few men who came up to talk to me were the ones who liked the movie," Holofcener says. "The ones who didn't skulked away pretty quickly, so I don't know what they were feeling." Perhaps they were feeling dismayed at how the male characters in W&T--the fiancee, an ex-boyfriend, a video-store clerk, and a coffee-shop waiter--are seen through the eyes of friends Amelia (Catherine Keener) and Laura (Anne Heche) as moochers or lazy or just plain gross, albeit endearingly so. Aside from some '90s-era comedic devices involving phone sex, answering machines, and cat chemotherapy, the movie's most modern quality is its view of men as mere appendages.

           Given this, it's perhaps not surprising that it took five years for the film to secure financing, during which time Holofcener watched her friend get married, got hitched herself, and rewrote constantly in the midst of some shaky funding deals--while the women's picture genre enjoyed a renaissance in both indieland and Hollywood. Benefiting from its long time in development, the film strikes a number of key balances: It's entertaining but not fluffy; it makes Amelia and Laura humorously neurotic, but not annoyingly so; and it portrays its females as preoccupied with men, but not dependent on them. W&T is also rare for being a marriage movie that ends with a shot of two women walking down the...um, staircase. "I think I had a little more insight by the end of those five years," says Holofcener, "and a little more clarity on my friend's decision to get married. And I developed more empathy for what both of us were going through--as opposed to feeling that she was the bad guy and I was the victim."

           Fortuitously, the delays in shooting also helped keep the film under a $1 million budget, and therefore quality-controlled; at one point, when it was planned as a pricier production, a studio investor advised Holofcener to include a scene of her characters getting high and going skinny dipping. To the extent that it resists such executive meddling, W&T can be seen as a more truthful version of The Truth About Cats & Dogs: Unlike that film about female bonding at odds with impending breeding, Holofcener's takes pains to reveal the women's relationship as genuine and mutually supportive. W&T could easily have turned into a sappy big-screen version of Ellen or Friends, but it's sharply written and exceptionally well-acted--owing on the one hand to Holofcener's experience making performance-centered shorts at Columbia, and on the other to her Tarantino-esque tenure as a video clerk who copied tons of movies (everything from The Heartbreak Kid to The Tenant) and watched them closely.

           When W&T screened at Sundance in the company of other women's films like Girls Town and Manny and Lo, Holofcener felt it was "about time" that financial inroads made by the likes of Jane Campion and Penny Marshall had an impact on the indie realm. But she remains frustrated that this fortune hasn't resulted in more women studio execs, and she can't hide her annoyance with critics who've stupidly charged Walking and Talking with reverse sexism. "You know, I feel that male audiences and critics are constantly looking for male-bashing in women's movies, and it's so tiresome," Holofcener says. "The truth is that some of the men in movies are going to be crummy--as many men are in real life, as many women are. Why can't we have idiot men in movies without being accused of stereotyping? If that was the case with every movie a man directed, regarding women characters--forget it. You'd have a pretty long list."

 
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