Women contain multitudes — they are three-dimensional, with backstories and goals, and full of their own fears and flaws and failings. While this may seem like stating the obvious, the mainstream representation of women in Hollywood doesn’t quite paint the picture of reality. Female characters – especially those written by men – often feel designed to be “likeable” and nice to look at, rather than relatably flawed and unruly. Enter Nicole Holofcener: her films constantly place witty women at the center of the story, and she is unafraid to show their bad behavior and subversion of expectations.
In a trio of films now available on the Criterion Channel, director Nicole Holofcener has been given a spotlight that is long overdue. Three of her works – Lovely & Amazing (2001), Friends with Money (2006), and Please Give (2010) – are all infused with sharp social criticism and empathetic insight, showing women in all their entertaining antics and self-destructive tendencies.
Capturing all the messy judgments of a dysfunctional family of women, Lovely & Amazing is a story of female bonds forged amidst self-criticism. Matriarch Jane Marks (Brenda Blethyn) has an adopted young daughter, Annie (Raven Goodwin), and two adult daughters who struggle to find themselves. Michelle Marks (Catherine Keener) is an aspiring artist, but her creative talents fail to impress her husband, Bill, or make any money; Elizabeth Marks (Emily Mortimer) is a budding actress deeply insecure about being photogenic in magazine shoots, or whether she’s whether she is “sexy” enough to land leading roles. Each woman in the Marks family is plagued by her own hypercritical view of herself: Annie, who is black, frequently wishes she looked more like her white relatives, while Jane gets liposuction surgery that leads to painful complications and a prolonged hospital stay.
In Please Give, a tale of intersecting lives in New York, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) is a mammography technologist and her sister, Mary (Amanda Peet), is a cosmetologist. Both are involved in creating or maintaining image in some capacity – scrutinizing predominantly female bodies and faces. Image-consciousness is a recurring motif in Holofcener’s work. But this is typically not driven by trying to look more desirable for men; instead, Holofcener’s work constantly sees women looking at themselves in hyper-magnified mirrors, becoming their own worst critics and searching desperately for avenues of confidence.
While some of the characters may, upon first glance, appear shallow and self-absorbed, they are captured in richly empathetic portraits that reveal their true depth. Holofcener combines her distinct brand of acerbic humor and critical distance with a closeness and tenderness to her characters, caring for them even in their worst moments (of which there are many). She is an astute observer of the complications and contradictions within people, presenting their sometimes admittedly terrible or deeply misguided qualities without condemning them.
Please Give showcases this to a notable degree. Kate (Catherine Keener) lives in New York with her partner, Alex (Oliver Platt), and daughter, Abby, (Sarah Steele), and can’t wait for the cranky old woman next door, Andra (Ann Guilbert), to die so they can expand into her apartment. However, Kate also feels guilty over her level of financial comfort. So what does she do? She offers her restaurant leftovers to a man she thinks is homeless (he’s actually waiting for a table), and forces her daughter to give money to random people on the street. Her tactless attempts at assuaging her guilt are extremely awkward and borderline offensive — it’s painful to watch, but also painfully funny.
Much of Holofcener’s oeuvre might be loosely classed as movies about “rich white people problems” — the characters are frequently well-off and self-involved, doing wealthy white people things like attending charity dinners or going for drives to see the fall foliage. Yet, all their money cannot buy them refinement in social interaction — or perhaps, inversely, their money affords them the ability to be more unrestrained and demanding. Holofcener creates darkly funny images of bourgeois anxiety and white guilt as these women grow increasingly guilty about their own privilege. Friends with Money puts class consciousness on full display within a group of women. Christine (Catherine Keener) is a television writer, Jane (Frances McDormand) is a fashion designer, and Franny (Joan Cusack) is a stay-at-home mom with a large inheritance – altogether they are the “friends with money” of Olivia (Jennifer Anniston), a woman who scrapes by through working as a house cleaner.
They chat casually about their wealth (Franny breezily drops her plan to donate two million dollars to her daughter’s school) while judging Olivia for being a maid. Yet while they may see her work as humiliating or beneath her, their lives are not much more desirable — Christine and her husband bicker constantly as they build their house to comically massive proportions, while Jane yells at people for stealing her parking spaces and has a meltdown in Old Navy. Olivia does not need their pity or charity; rather, they are the ones that need help.
Even when they should, Holofcener’s characters often feel no qualms about speaking their minds or breaking social norms. They say things they regret, tell jokes that don’t land, misspeak, mishear, and make fools of themselves at parties and in intimate relationships. As Michelle’s husband Bill tells her, “You can’t just run around telling people to fuck off.” But she can, and she does. Frequently.
Yet these women somehow manage to not care what you think, and simultaneously, care immensely. They face debilitating uncertainty and worry constantly about how they are being perceived. Rather than skipping over these contradictions, hypocrisies, or awkward moments, Holofcener revels in them. Women can be cruel and critical towards themselves and one another, but they can also find small moments of tenderness and solidarity amidst their isolation. We may not always like them or want to be them, but we see them as they are — unguarded, unfiltered, and sharply realistic.