FILM; Just Like Her Family: Complicated
ON the refrigerator in Nicole Holofcener’s rustic Topanga Canyon home, alongside many candid family snapshots, is a school photograph of her 12-year-old brother, Cory Joffe. He is smiling. This definitely wasn’t taken when he discovered that a character based on him in his sister’s new movie, ”Lovely and Amazing,” would be named Annie and played by a child, Raven Goodwin.
”He was like: ‘You turned me into an 8-year-old girl? How could you do this to me?’ ” said Ms. Holofcener, 42, while sitting in her kitchen on a recent morning.
Ms. Holofcener’s mother, Carol Joffe, is at least portrayed as someone of her own sex — the character based on her is played by Brenda Blethyn — but she comes off as vain, ditzy and obsessed with the painstaking arrangement of a dozen throw pillows she keeps piled on her bed.
When asked about her mother’s reaction, Ms. Holofcener’s brown eyes widened. ”She’s disowned me!” whispered Ms. Holofcener. Really? Ms. Holofcener threw back her head and laughed. ”No, no! I’m kidding. Didn’t you just hear her?” A few minutes earlier, a woman had left a cheery message on Ms. Holofcener’s answering machine. ”She just called.”
The family in ”Lovely and Amazing,” which opens Friday, looks a lot like Ms. Holofcener’s own clan. In 1990, Ms. Joffe, with two daughters already grown, quit her job as a set decorator, on films like ”Sophie’s Choice” and ”Purple Rose of Cairo,” and legally adopted her four-month-old African-American foster child, Cory.
In ”Lovely and Amazing,” Jane Marks, a wealthy matron, undergoes cosmetic surgery, leaving her 8-year-old adopted African-American daughter, Annie, in the care of her two grown daughters, a caustic, unfulfilled housewife, Michelle (Catherine Keener), and an insecure actress, Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer). When complications lengthen her hospital stay, the daughters must come to grips with their respective roles in this unconventional family, as well as in their own unstable personal lives.
One of the points Ms. Holofcener wanted her film to make was that mixed-race adoption has its complications as well as its rewards. ”When your family has a black kid in it, people think that it’s all just rosy, and don’t you feel great about yourself 24 hours a day?” Ms. Holofcener said. ”I didn’t want the character in the movie to be the cutie pie that makes everyone feel they did such a good deed.”
By now, Ms. Holofcener’s friends and family expect her to turn the stuff of her life into films. Her 1996 independent hit, ”Walking and Talking,” examined the impending marriage of Ms. Holofcener’s best friend and how it affected their tight relationship. Even the short films she made in the late 80’s, while earning a master’s degree from Columbia University’s film program, capture Ms. Holofcener’s fully formed sensibility: wickedly funny, honest, deeply autobiographical. ”Angry,” a deadpan five-minute comedy, begins with a young woman (played by Ms. Holofcener) saying: ”Last week, I broke up with my mother. At first, I was pretty upset. But now I’m feeling pretty good!”
”Lovely and Amazing” follows in this style — wringing laughs out of small behavioral details, like Michelle’s inclination for cursing at total strangers or the model-thin Elizabeth’s frequent inspection of the invisible flab on her upper arms. But almost every genuinely painful moment involves the overweight character Annie, whose caloric intake is being monitored just as closely as her obvious confusion about race and identity.
What is never in doubt is the mother’s devotion to all three children, and their devotion to her. This loyalty is what struck Ms. Blethyn when she first read the script.
”They all love each other and yet still they have basic resentments, find each other foolish,” she said. ”But what I really was struck by was, here were these intelligent women with all these stupid obsessions.” Ms. Holofcener’s grasp of human frailties, Ms. Blethyn said, is close to that of the slice-of-life British director Mike Leigh, whom Ms. Blethyn worked with on ”Secrets and Lies.” ”Nicole is only interested in the actual truth of things. Even when the truth is boring.”
Ms. Holofcener was born into a theatrical family: in addition to her mother’s show business credentials, her father, Lawrence Holofcener, is a veteran stage actor and Broadway lyricist. She spent her childhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan but moved to Santa Monica, Calif., with her mother and older sister, Suzanne, when she was 12.
She found her first success in the decorative arts. ”I’d paint these really corny drawings with poems on them and sell them to stores in Beverly Hills,” Ms. Holofcener said. What were her verses about? ”Motherhood. Sunshine. The waves. They were probably really all about depression, and I didn’t know it.”
Madeline Moskowitz, however, recalls Ms. Holofcener’s teenage years as anything but mopey. Ms. Moskowitz has been Ms. Holofcener’s best friend since the 11th grade and is the inspiration for the vacillating bride-to-be played by Anne Heche in ”Walking and Talking.”
”She was the life of the party, such a clown,” Ms. Moskowitz said. ”We’d spend hours and hours together every day, just doing nothing, and she personally was so funny. I always wanted her to have her own TV show: ‘The Nicole Show.’ I’d watch it every day.”
If and when ”The Nicole Show” materializes, at least one episode could deal with an important lesson she learned about nepotism in the movie business. In 1982, Ms. Holofcener’s stepfather, the film producer Charles Joffe, got her a job as a production assistant on Woody Allen’s 1982 film ”A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.” But she never got close to the action; she found herself at the mercy of Teamsters, who made sure that well-connected peons paid their dues. ”We were shooting up in the countryside in upstate New York, and they’d send me two miles away,” Ms. Holofcener said. ”I’d be up in the mountains by myself, yelling, ‘Rolling!’ and I’d think: ‘What’s wrong with this picture? Am I on ‘Candid Camera?’ ”
Ms. Holofcener also worked as an apprentice editor on Mr. Allen’s ”Hannah and Her Sisters.” (”Guess how I got the job,” she said.) A few years later, she enrolled at Columbia University and was soon writing, directing and displaying prescience when it came to casting. Her student videos featured the actresses Allison Janney (now in ”The West Wing”) and Cynthia Nixon (”Sex and the City”). ”Walking and Talking,” her feature debut, is considered the first real showcase for Ms. Heche and Ms. Keener, who was nominated for an Academy Award for ”Being John Malkovich.”
Even with her eye for talent, Ms. Holofcener’s decision to hire two British actors — Ms. Blethyn and Ms. Mortimer — for ”Lovely and Amazing” became a concern. After all, the accents they were required to perfect had to indicate that they were not only from America but also from the same household.
”Friends, the producers, everyone thought I was kind of crazy,” said Ms. Holofcener, who hired a voice coach, crossed her fingers and then made lots of nervous jokes about how the script would explain the differing accents. ”Like, they could say, ‘Where is Dad? I mean, he’s English. So he must be in England now,’ ” Ms. Holofcener said. ”I was really, really scared. But as soon as we started shooting, I was relieved.”
As she said this, Ms. Holofcener began idly manipulating the arms of a plastic Tyrannosaurus Rex sitting on her kitchen table. Though neither of her 4 1/2-year-old twin sons were around this morning, she had moments of acting like a mommy. For one thing, along with coffee, she served kiddie-sized cubes of cantaloupe from a large salad bowl, with two forks but no plates. Like any conscientious parent, she regularly offered, apropos of nothing, directions to the bathroom.
”My kids are with their father today,” Ms. Holofcener said. For the past eight months, she has been living apart from her husband, Ben Allanoff, a screenwriter and director. He explored his conflicted feelings of love and jealousy for his wife in a documentary called ”What About Me?”
Ms. Holofcener still isn’t sure how to refer to Mr. Allanoff. ”It’s so new,” she said, running through her choices aloud before settling on ”ex-husband.” A silence. As much as ”Lovely and Amazing” focuses on mother-daughter dynamics, it also deals with romantic flux and the different ways men and women communicate. ”I didn’t know we were going to separate when I made the movie,” Ms. Holofcener said. The realities of divorce and single parenthood are suddenly tangible. ”Maybe my next movie will have that hideous insight.”