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film review

Catherine Keener, left, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a scene from the film Enough Said.Lacey Terrell/The Associated Press

Enough Said, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini as middle-aged singles embarking on a new relationship, confirms filmmaker Nicole Holofcener's status as one of America's best stealth satirists.

This, her fifth film in 16 years, is as breezy as a sitcom while slyly probing the danger zones of body image, class and the feminine pecking order.

This is the director's closest thing to a conventional romantic comedy, but as with all her movies (Friends with Money, Please Give), it deals with boundary issues. Louis-Dreyfus plays Eva, a divorced Los Angeles massage therapist who begins dating an amiable TV librarian, Albert (James Gandolfini), without realizing that another new friend, Marianne (Catherine Keener), is Albert's disgruntled ex-wife.

On paper, this must have seemed a commercial slam dunk, thanks to A-level TV stars (Gandolfini and Louis-Dreyfus) and a story that, while mildly excruciating at times, isn't deeply painful. Unavoidably, though, the experience of the movie is coloured by the death of the 51-year-old Gandolfini from a heart attack last June, amplifying the film's bittersweet tone. His role as a sensitive, vulnerable teddy bear is worlds apart from Tony Soprano and his other tough-guy roles, giving a glimpse into other dimensions of the actor that will never be realized.

For the film's box-office purposes, a chance to see Gandolfini in his second-to-last movie role (he'll appear next year in the film Animal Rescue, adapted from a Dennis Lehane story) will probably help. For the film's purposes, it's something of a distraction. In Enough Said, Goldolfini's character is significant because of how he's seen by Eva.

This is Louis-Dreyfus's movie (her first since 1997), in a role that suggests what would happen if Seinfeld's irrepressible Elaine lived in the real world. Eva defines herself as a clown. She mugs, sometimes unflatteringly, and wisecracks compulsively. She does inappropriate things, including counselling her daughter's friend to lose her virginity. She's emotionally needy, and thinks she's independent.

Like Amanda Peet's cosmetologist in Holofcener's Please Give, or Jennifer Aniston's maid in Friends with Money, Eva has a job that connects her to well-off strangers in a physically intimate way. Her clients include a middle-aged guy with chronic bad breath, a woman who can't stop kvetching about her social circle, and a fit young man who passively watches Eva drag her heavy massage table up a flight of steps to his house. Though she is habitually upbeat, Eva is facing a mild crisis: Her daughter Ellen (Tracey Fairaway) is preparing to move to an eastern college, leaving Eva alone.

One evening at a pool-side cocktail party, invited by friends, Eva makes two connections: She and the heavy-set Albert are introduced and immediately agree that they find no one at the party attractive. Later, Eva meets an elegant woman, Marianne (Catherine Keener), a poet who happens to be looking for a good masseuse. She takes Eva's business card.

Albert calls her for a date. He, too, has a college-aged daughter. They kibitz easily, share shortcomings ("I really need to do something about my weight," he admits), and agree that young people and trendy restaurants are obnoxious. The affection and goodwill is palpable and they agree to meet again. Later, Eva brags to her friend Sarah (Toni Collette, a therapist who is not so good at patient confidentiality) that she has met a great "not classically handsome" guy whom she really likes.

Eva heads to Marianne's perfectly decorated house, where guests are asked to remove not only their shoes but their socks as well. Marianne, who seems to crave having a regular, down-to-earth girlfriend, tells Eva all about her slobby, physically unattractive ex-husband. Eva does not, immediately, make the connection, but when she does wise up, she is too invested in her new cool friend to speak out.

Keener, Holofcener's go-to actress, makes Marianne amusingly enigmatic, a hippie narcissist who treats her adoring fans with a bored noblesse oblige and seems far more interested in decor and gardening than writing. Eva finds her writing opaque, but believes that she is Marianne's only real friend. Or at least until Marianne name-drops that Joni Mitchell really liked the galleys to her last book.

These are the subjects that Holofcener does exceptionally well – the myopia, vanity and insecurities of the moderately privileged. Though she is often compared to Woody Allen, more likely models would seem to be two directors named Brooks: James L. Brooks (Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets) for his menschy comedies of flawed people seeking to connect, and Albert Brooks for his wry social satires.

As Eva and Albert work through the shock of betrayal and forgiveness, both Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini hit the emotional beats precisely and movingly. At other moments, though, Holofcener's script might have benefited from saying a little less. She fills in the margins with a couple of subplots that feel sitcom-inspired. One of these is the fractious relationship between Sarah and her neglected husband, Will (Ben Falcone). They're a "successful" couple, yet they're perpetually on the edge of open warfare about how to fire an incompetent maid.

Another side trifle involves Eva's blatant, if unconscious, attempt to adopt Ellen's best friend Chloe (Tavi Gevinson) as a replacement daughter when Ellen goes off to school. The only purpose of these scenes is to confirm what's already obvious, that Eva, like most of us, has emotional blind spots that are transparent to everyone else.

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