From an offhand mention of fat-free cookies to the drastic step of liposuction, self-esteem issues are at the core of writer-director Nicole Holofcener's Lovely & Amazing, a perceptive and eerily exacting melodrama about a common malady in women's lives. The subject may not seem very cinematic, but Holofcener and her superb cast produce an atmosphere of casual self-loathing and uncertainty that's wholly convincing, with subtle touches in the dialogue and action that transcend mere talk-show fodder. A wise and funny chronicler of human neuroses, Holofcener follows up her charming indie debut, 1996's Walking And Talking, with a more ambitious and thematically cohesive effort, but she keeps the scale appropriately modest. As a family of women grapples with its separate and shared emotional hang-ups, its esteem problems become painfully apparent from the outside, yet rarely acknowledged from within, creating a tension that's dramatically potent and remarkably true-to-life. No one raises any objections when Brenda Blethyn, a middle-aged single mother with two grown daughters and an adopted little girl, decides to get liposuction to carve 10 pounds of fat from her stomach and hips. Her insecurities are echoed by one of her eldest daughters, Emily Mortimer, an aspiring actress who withstands humiliating casting sessions to test her "chemistry," only to return home to a boyfriend (James LeGros) who blasts her for pursuing such a superficial career. Approaching middle age with a failing marriage and no buyers for her homemade crafts, Mortimer's sister (Catherine Keener) regresses into stunted adolescence, typified by her sweetly ill-advised fling with the clerk (Jake Gyllenhaal) at a one-hour photo shop. The family's declining fortunes spill over to Blethyn's 8-year-old adopted daughter (Raven Goodwin), a black orphan whose skin color and weight problems alienate her from her peers. With sympathy and low-key humor, Holofcener reveals how a loving environment can still be faintly toxic, as the women feed perpetually off their own withered opinions of themselves. In one bravura scene, Mortimer literally offers herself up for criticism by a vain movie star (Dermot Mulroney), accepting his frank remarks with a forced playfulness that edges into masochism. Holofcener draws the men too broadly, particularly LeGros and Clark Gregg as the older siblings' mechanically insensitive mates, and several third-act twists smack of screenwriter's convenience. But Lovely & Amazing emerges as something rare, an issue movie that's so honest and keenly observed that it doesn't feel like one. It earns its thesis statement through minute details and a unique grasp of a commonplace problem.
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