TV stardom can make an acting career. The best actors on the most successful series—think James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Elaine Benes–become not only popular characters but cultural icons, almost real to their audiences.
But even the most successful series come to an end, and their stars face the rest of their lives. On what they have earned–Gandolfini got $1 million an episode and Louis-Dreyfus $660,000 per episode—they don’t ever have to work again. But if they do, they face two choices: they can continue to play variations on the same character. Or strike out in new directions.
That’s what Gandolfini and Louis-Dreyfus try for in Enough Said, a recently-released and well-reviewed romantic comedy written and directed by Nicole Holofcener about two middle-aged divorcÃ©es, Albert and Eva, who find each other and love. Gandolfini succeeds; Louis-Dreyfus, not so much. And because she falls short, a picture with a great deal of potential is perfectly pleasant, but not as good as it might have been.
Gandolfini and Holofcener succeed by abandoning Tony Soprano. Where Tony Soprano was brutal and amoral, sensitive only to his own feelings, Gandolfini’s Albert is intelligent, warm-hearted in touch with his own feelings but perceptive about others’ as well.
Louis-Dreyfus and Holofcener are less bold and less successful. The actress we know as the ditzy, distracted and self-absorbed Elaine Benes, Ellie Riggs, Christine Campbell and Vice President Selina Mayer is cast in Enough Said as ditzy, distracted and self-absorbed Eva.
The problem starts with Enough Said’s trailer. Like too many trailers, this one gives away the mainspring of the movie’s plot when it reveals that soon after Eva meets Albert, she discovers that he is the ex-husband of her new best friend, a poet named Marianne (Catherine Keener).
But giving away the story in the trailer is not what sabotages Enough Said. That would be inserting a quintessentially sit-commy, good-for-easy-laughs-but-sure-to-be-discovered plot device in what could have been a rom-com of some depth. For Eva does not react to her discovery by grappling in any serious way with the collision between the two parts of her life. Instead she does what Elaine Benes would do: keeping the coincidence secret from both Albert and Marianne while exploiting them to her own advantage, deepening her relationship with Albert and offering herself as a confidant to his ex-wife.
It’s too bad. As rom-coms go, Enough Said takes on some interesting issues. What happens to a relationship when one party discovers at its inception things that usually emerge only farther down the road? Why do we listen to third-parties’ opinions of prospective friends or lovers when we know that what is lovable to one person, or at one stage of a relationship, may be off-putting to another or at another stage, I recall a good friend referring to the irritating habits of a man with whom she had recently broken off an engagement. What were those irritants? I asked. “Oh,” she replied, after a moment, “all the things I found endearing when we were engaged.”
Enough Said gets to some of those issues, but only after the sit-com plot device has changed the rom-com tone the film has established. Eva becomes bothered by Albert’s corpulence, for example, only after hearing from his ex-wife of his inability to stick to a diet. And she notices the primitive furnishing of his bachelor bungalow only after hearing the ex-wife complain about it.
Indeed, some of Albert’s habits do seem a bit much, even through the eyes of a former bachelor. What kind of suitor invites a new girlfriend over for brunch, as Gandolfini’s Albert does on his and Eva’s second date, and greets her in baggy pajamas because it’s Sunday and he likes to be comfortable? What kind of suitor keeps dozens of bottles of barely-opened mouthwash and toothbrushes in his bathroom vanity?
A sit-com suitor, that’s what kind. Would anyone but a sit-com wife like Everybody Loves Raymond’s Debra Barone marry whiny, clueless Ray Barone and consent to living across the street from her intrusive and abusive in-laws? Would anyone but a sit-com character like Doc Martin’s Louisa Glasson even consider a romantic attachment with boorish, overbearing and generally repulsive “Doc” Martin Ellingham?
The sit-com devices undermine the otherwise intelligently written, cast and directed Enough Said. They make the story and characters hard to take seriously in a genre that depends on relating to its characters not as punch-line machines but as real people with real feelings and real problems.
What led the highly-regarded Holofcener to break her film’s character in this way? Who knows?
But one factor may have been the gravitational pull of her lead actor, Louis-Dreyfus (Gandolfini gets second billing.) Louis-Dreyfus has been a huge artistic and commercial success doing what she does and playing the characters she’s played. But we know her too well. The momentum of the sit-com parts she’s inhabited pullsthe story that Enough Said tells toward sit-com conventions and away from the more serious character and plot development we expect of rom-coms.
It may have seemed like an easy transition from playing Elaine, Christine and Selina, at whom we laughed, to playing Eva, with whom we want to laugh. Maybe it was too easy. Maybe we know Louis-Dreyfus—or rather the character she plays—too well to accept her in a more serious role. Or maybe, if she wants to break away from Elaine Benes she needs to make a cleaner break, as Gandolfini did, not only in Enough Said but in his role as the CIA director in Argo.
Louis-Dreyfus brings critical and box-office success to Enough Said. And her performance contributes to an enjoyable hour-and-a-half. But it could have been much more.