Bird Watching – I Don’t Get Nicole Holofcener
Every time I watch a film by Nicole Holofcener, I really, really want to like it. Well, I always want to like a film I’m about to spend time watching, but I especially want to like films by women. And I especially especially want to like films by women starring lots of other women, as all of hers do. But I’ve watched all four of the feature length films Holofcener’s written and directed, and I have to say, whatever she’s trying to do just does not speak to me.
Let’s go through these. From 1996, we have Walking and Talking, starring Catherine Keener and Anne Heche as best friends whose relationship is occasionally strained because one of them is getting married, and the other is painfully single. This is a very 90s movie, in the dialogue and the neuroses on display. But I can’t really fault it for that, what with it being made in the 90s and all. (Just as an aside, I have to say that I am glad we’re now living in a decade when overalls, boxy t-shirts, big white chunky sneakers, and other such clothes that only toddlers should wear are not considered fashionable for adult women.) I would probably say that this is the film of Holofcener’s that I like the most. There are some funny moments, especially between Keener’s Amelia and her former boyfriend/still-sort-of-potential love interest Andrew, played winningly by Liev Schreiber. The friendship between Amelia and Heche’s Laura is mostly believable in a way that some of the relationships in her later movies just aren’t. Still, we see the beginnings of a lot of things that turn me off from her other work. She seems to think that the only way to indicate intimacy between two characters is to have them overshare with each other, and also be really mean, under the guise of “honesty.” A lot of things happen, but in the end so little has actually changed for any of the characters that I have no idea what the message of the film is supposed to be.
Holofcener’s next film was 2001’s Lovely & Amazing, another that has some elements that work for me, but not enough to bring the film together into something I can recommend. Brenda Blethyn plays mother to Catherine Keener (she’s in all of Holofcener’s films) and Emily Mortimer, along with a younger, adopted daughter (Raven Goodwin), who’s dealing with being black in an otherwise white family. All of the characters in this film are dealing with neuroses about society’s expectations for them as far as their physical appearance. This is something worth talking about, since it’s very real for most women. But, it’s hard to dig into a theme when you just don’t like the characters that are the vehicles for it. If we’re watching an indie dramedy, there has to be some enjoyment that comes from the characters themselves, right? These people are straight up annoying.
The lack of appeal in Holofcener’s characters really reaches a fury in her next film, 2006’s Friends With Money. My god, I hated everyone. Why are they all so mean to each other? Why do they hold each other in such contempt when they’re supposed to be close? Why is that presented as “reality,” as “honesty”? Is this what friendship becomes in your 30s and 40s? If so, I want to stop here. (Or maybe Nicole Holofcener just really needs some new friends, herself.) Again, we have a theme worth talking about—the awkwardness of being friends across income brackets—but it’s done in such a way that I have no idea what I’m supposed to take away. No one seems to do anything that makes any sense, and then the ending is absolutely ridiculous. (Spoiler: Jennifer Aniston’s character, the one with no money, has been cleaning houses for a living. She starts dating one of the dudes whose houses she cleans, who seems to be an unemployed stoner, and bargains with her on her prices. In the end, he’s rich, too. And….that’s it!)
Perhaps the experience of making Friends With Money totally turned Holofcener off from the very concept of friendship, because in her newest film, 2010’s Please Give, no one has any. We follow the story of a married couple played by Keener and Oliver Platt, who have purchased the apartment of the elderly woman next door with eventual plans to expand theirs when she dies, the woman’s two granddaughters (saintly Rebecca Hall, sinner Amanda Peet) and one very unpleasant teenage daughter (Sarah Steele). I use the word “story” a bit loosely here. The set-up is interesting enough. Then a bunch of stuff happens, but no one’s actions ever seem that motivated by actual desires or dilemmas; people are awful to each other; and in the end no one has really learned anything. I get trying to do a slice of life, glimpse-into-reality type of movie, I really do. But is everything really that awkward and unpleasant in real life? Do people really never bring each other any kind of joy? Are we all just tolerating each other?
A friend was recently defending Holofcener to me, pointing out how often we’re asked to sit through movies with entirely unlikable male characters as our “heroes.” Why shouldn’t less-than-pleasant women also be able to take center stage? I had to concede that it’s a good point. And, like I pointed out, Holofcener does bring up themes that are worth showcasing in film.
So, is it me, then? Am I the problem? Any big fans out there who can help me understand what I’m missing?