Somewhere there must be a rulebook that insists romantic comedies must hinge on a Big Lie, a contrivance that's all the more annoying when that lie (often one of omission) is so obviously unnecessary. Enduring this cliche is the price you pay with Nicole Holofcener's "Enough Said." If you can get past it, you'll find two powerhouse performances and some nicely written scenes that, in tandem, provide some of the most enjoyable romantic and comedic moments of the year.
Writer-director Holofcener ("Please Give," "Friends with Money") has devised in "Enough Said" a comedy of separation anxiety and conjoining anxiety. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Eva, a divorced, middle-aged suburban Southern California masseuse with a daughter imminently heading off to college. James Gandolfini plays Albert, a divorced, middle-aged suburban Southern California TV librarian with a daughter imminently heading off to college. So they have a lot in common, including a mutual sense of humor, and they instantly hit it off at a party.
The course of true love never did run smooth, and at first, the ways Holofcener observes Eva's hesitations ring true. The hefty, slovenly Albert isn't exactly an obvious physical match for the fit Eva (a disparity the film never forgets to use to painful effect), and she's gun-shy in any case due to the specter of their failed marriages. But Albert is sweet and funny, and as Eva puts it, "Our middle-agedness is comforting and sexy to me," so she proceeds, tentatively in Albert's presence and recklessly when he's not around.
The recklessness comes in the form of investigating Albert, like a reader of paperback mysteries who can't help peeking at the end of the book. Sometimes her curiosity is benign (asking him direct questions), sometimes questionable (sizing up the contents of his bathroom), but in the main, it proves dangerously duplicitous as she accidentally befriends Albert's ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and begins plying her for information: There begin the lies. Eva's just as cluelessly hurtful with her daughter, Ellen (Tracey Fairaway), by failing to arrange bonding time on her terms. Eva enables Albert's unaware ex to poison Eva's burgeoning romance, and Ellen's friend Chloe (Tavi Gevinson) to supplant Ellen in Eva's affections.
These scenes have an unintentional awkwardness to go along with their intentional awkwardness: Generic and obligatory, they don't ring very true. But whenever human lie detector Gandolfini is on the scene, "Enough Said" steps up its game. A dinner party with Eva's married friends Sarah (Toni Collette) and Will (Ben Falcone) works up believable displays of drunken ugliness for Eva, whose pathetic, selfish nadir finds her thoughtlessly offending Albert in public. (Although, for the straw that breaks the camel's back, the crack about his weight would make more sense than the harmless -- and funny -- ribbing about how he can't whisper.)
When Holofcener gets Dreyfus and Gandolfini alone, "Enough Said" is a beautiful thing. The actors' duets hit extraordinarily naturalistic notes, in verbal delivery and in heartbreakingly real eye contact and physical expression, from their very charming first date to their final, suspenseful confrontation. As a big-screen showcase for do-no-wrong Dreyfus and as a posthumous victory lap for Gandolfini (who died of a heart attack in June), this comedy of middle-aged manners, and lack thereof, has heart.