Constructive criticism: Dermot Mulroney and Emily Mortimer in 'Lovely & Amazing'
Lions Gate Films

The most striking scene in Nicole Holofcener's otherwise disarmingly subtle film Lovely & Amazing occurs about an hour of the way through. Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), a thirtysomething film actor who has had to show her boobs and more in order to stay competitive in the industry, has just finished sleeping with a male superstar (Dermot Mulroney) whose approval could be good for both her career and her shaky self-esteem. Lying naked in the man's bed, she asks him to do something weird and possibly kinky: She stands, walks to the corner of the room, and presents her nude body for the star's precise evaluation. After a nervous joke or two ("Is this some kind of trick?"), he obliges--tentatively at first ("You've got nice hips..."), then with amiable honesty ("Your arms are a little loose right up at the top"), then a feeling of relief and accomplishment ("That was refreshing!"). It's like sex, but perhaps even more intimate--and comforting. Elizabeth thanks him, puts on her dress, and nearly skips down the street toward home, her head held high. We've never seen her so happy.

Don't all of us long for a clear sense of where we stand? To be praised for our gifts and, more crucial still, to be understood and perhaps forgiven for our countless flaws? Doesn't everyone crave the opportunity to strip down, to expose oneself, to lay the body bare before one's critics? Well, come to think of it, maybe not. But the artist submits to such naked evaluation all the time; that's part of the process. And if Lovely & Amazing allegorizes the incredible anguish and occasional joy of letting it all hang out, the movie also advocates for exercising gentleness in the determination not only of art, but of people. (In this, it's the anti-Happiness.) Holofcener catalogs the ridiculous standards of beauty that we seek to maintain both on and off the screen, and, through a quartet of image-obsessed characters, makes a pointedly misshapen and proudly idiosyncratic comedy in which imperfections are made to seem lovely--amazing, even. This critic may hardly be known for his own gentle ways, but here he's compelled to proclaim a rough beauty before his eyes.

Elizabeth--she of the flabby upper arms--is the middle of three insecure L.A. daughters whose long-divorced mother Jane (Brenda Blethyn) has hit on liposuction as a way to land a new man. (Is there a gene for narcissism?) The eldest daughter is Michelle (Catherine Keener), who appears to have spent half her life falling from an early peak as the high school homecoming queen. Now haggard and bitter and barely employed, she trades insults with her philandering husband (Clark Gregg), generally neglects her preteen daughter (Ashlynn Rose), and mutters "bitch" and "asshole" at arts and crafts-store clerks who take a pass on purchasing her miniature-chair sculptures. (Michelle's idea of conflict management is telling the offending party to fuck off.) The youngest daughter is Annie (Raven Goodwin), an eight-year-old African American girl whom Jane has adopted somewhat inexplicably--which may explain the child's attention-getting habit of playing dead in the swimming pool. Annie's function in the family is less clear than her function in the movie, her very presence drawing attention to the white, well-off method of self-transformation. And yet the black girl, too, is learning to assimilate: She wants to straighten her hair.

Focusing largely on neurosis passed from mother to daughter (fathers are present mainly by their conspicuous absence), Lovely & Amazing is the rare women's picture made independently by a woman--and it's rarer still for being tough on women. As in Walking and Talking, her comic lament on the evils that brides do to their maids of honor, Holofcener strikes a careful balance between distaff divertissement and stark, semiautobiographical realism. The new film's bold, occasionally disorienting vignette style not only suits the befuddlement of the characters, but allows the film to eschew plot development in favor of the Big Themes: the violent perils of routine communication, the damaging effects of both perfectionism and apathy, the impulse to nurture against the ruthless need for self-protection.

Albeit admirably harsh, Lovely & Amazing dares to depart from the New Cinema of Cruelty (cf. Solondz, LaBute, et al.) by pointing a way out of nitpicking pitilessness, by discovering the beauty in our blemishes. So, too, it puts the lie to the self-engrossed faux sisterhood of the worst women's pictures: Its full-bodied women barely resemble the airbrushed stick figures that Holofcener herself has gamely directed in several episodes of Sex and the City. But then, as her latest movie tells us, not all our talents are always put to the best use, and in that spirit, all is forgiven.

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