On its own, the premise of Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said could fit snugly into a sitcom episode. Divorced masseuse Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) goes to a party and meets both a potential new boyfriend, Albert (James Gandolfini), and a potential new client and friend, Marianne (Catherine Keener). Later, she realizes Albert and Marianne used to be married — and she’s unwittingly heard all about their contentious history from both sides. It’s the kind of situation Louis-Dreyfus’s Elaine might have encountered on Seinfeld (though not quite the wheelhouse of Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano).
The comic and dramatic fallout from Eva’s knowledge is not surprising. But perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the movie’s surprises are not plot-based — because the smart and low-key Enough Said has other, more subtle ways of subverting expectations. Rather than accelerate toward the story hook, writer-director Holofcener takes her time, allowing her characters to have real conversations with each other; the revelation about Marianne and Albert comes later in the movie than the trailer would have you believe. In fact, describing the movie as about a woman accidentally befriending her new boyfriend’s ex would almost feel like a spoiler, if not for the natural, inviting way Holofcener tells this relatively simple (and deceptively complex) story.
Longtime Holofcener fans may need to adjust to the casting of her usual muse Keener in a supporting role; the movie really belongs to Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who appears in almost every scene — the subject of a tighter focus than usual for the filmmaker. Though she’s one of television’s finest comedic actresses, Dreyfus has only appeared in a few handfuls of movies — and none, in fact, since Seinfeld left the air in 1998. Her physical, expressive approach contrasts sharply with Keener’s withering stillness (here converted to a specific self-satisfaction that the Dreyfus character amusingly and semi-inexplicably seems to adore), and loosens the movie up as she warms to Albert. As Albert, the late Gandolfini, stripped of his potential for menace, paints an affectionate portrait of half-charming, half-calcified middle-aged habits. Though the movie spends some time considering whether a relationship can be “poisoned” by outside knowledge of bad habits, it’s also about (among other things) the process of settling, in two senses of the word: settling into who you are as a middle-aged adult, and deciding whether accepting that in other people counts as a compromise with yourself.
One of the pleasures of Holofcener’s recent work is the addition of teenagers — almost always teenage daughters — into her ensembles. Enough Said’s emphasis on Eva means that her daughter Ellen (Tracey Fairaway) and Ellen’s friend Chloe (Tavi Gevinson) don’t get the kind of screentime afforded to the major cast members from Lovely and Amazing or Please Give. But the young performers are strong and believable, and the fact that Eva and Albert both have college-bound kids informs one of the film’s subtle surprises: real emotion about empty-nesting.
Eva’s married friends (Toni Collette and Ben Falcone) are less vital additions to the cast. They bicker like less-funny This is 40 outtakes, and their unfortunate subplot about the delicate mechanics of firing a maid obviously aims to comment on the privileged problems of an upper-middle-class Los Angeles family but instead just sort of complains about them. Even if some of this side material feels unnecessary, though, Holofcener retains her ability to write funny dialogue that informs relationship dynamics, and vice versa: she reveals character through conversations about the Container Store and whether or not Albert is capable of whispering.
These descriptions may not do Enough Said justice; talk about the movie too much, and it may still sound like TV, an extended episode of what you supposedly get all the time on cable. But while Holofcener moonlights as a TV director, her movies afford the gratifying risks of not carrying on for forty or fifty or a hundred episodes. The characters in Enough Said are likable enough to keep following, but in its small but effective way, the movie puts periods at the end of their sentences.