I often wonder if actors who become really, really famous for a single role develop mixed feelings about their predicament: How do they avoid finding every subsequent performance judged in comparison to that career-defining part? And it’s so much worse when that success is derived from a performance on a TV series, when an audience can take years to get to know the actor – or think they know him.
I was reminded of this “problem” (one many struggling actors would no doubt be happy to have) upon watching Enough Said (rated PG-13), Nicole Holofcener’s gentle, pragmatic romantic comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and James Gandolfini, who died suddenly last summer after a much-too-short career. Gandolfini, of course, hit it big with HBO’s The Sopranos, and that character’s towering menace pretty much set the stage for a long but limiting resume of “heavies” – tough guys, crooks, intimidating figures all. Did he ever go home at night and find himself depressed at not being challenged to show the world he could do more than that?
Holofcener gave him that chance in this, his second-to-last film. (In the final one, Nicky Deuce, to be released next year, he’ll play ... a gangster.) Gandolfini plays Albert, a kind, quiet, overweight schlub who finds himself in an unexpectedly warm and winning relationship with Eva (Louis-Dreyfuss), a masseuse who has also just unknowingly befriended Albert’s ex-wife (Catherine Keener). Both middle-aged and soon to be empty nesters as their respective daughters head off to college, Eva and Albert are nervous about getting involved again – and in Eva’s case that nervousness is compounded by hearing a litany of complaints about her new boyfriend from his ex-wife, who doesn’t realize who Eva is really dating.
Enough Said is driven by Eva’s plight – and a premise that would be right at home in an old Three’s Company episode – but Holofcener, who also wrote the screenplay, is generous with her characters. She understands that the more we get to know Albert, the more strongly we’ll empathize for Eva. As with all of the director’s past projects (the acerbic Please Give, the smart Friends With Money), Holofcener never over-reaches here: Her goals are simple – show us these people, explain their troubles, get us to care about them – and her aim is true.
It’s a treat to see such a mature, fully realized film centered on a female lead; that said, I wish Louis-Dreyfuss had more to do with her character. Eva’s dramatic arc is painfully short; her decisions are logical and explainable, but abrupt and too easily forgiven by us, if not by Albert. (Oh, spoiler alert: He finds out.) Still, she’s fine in this not-quite-developed role, and anyway, it’s just such a treat to see Gandolfini stretch his legs that I don’t really care about the other stuff. His Albert is a benign conundrum: Is he really nothing more than the surface complaints freely tossed off by his ex? Has the blush of new romance blinded Eva to his flaws? Or is there more to him, and to their relationship, than that?
Gandolfini makes us care about that question. With self-effacing charm, he draws us in and makes us not want to leave the theater when the credits start to roll, just on the off chance Holofcener maybe included a few outtakes or something. Instead, we get a simple closing line over the end credits: “For Jim.” Enough Said.
(IMAGE: James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in Enough Said. Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures.)