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Odd couple: Gyllenhaal and Keener in Lovely and Amazing.

Women Who Obsess
By Laura Leon

Lovely and Amazing
Directed by Nicole Holofcener

Clearly, writer-director Nicole Holofcener is in love with language, or rather, enamored of that process by which even intelligent people misread others’ comments to play into their own neuroses and insecurities. Her latest film, Lovely and Amazing, is nothing if not a platform on which to stage four incredible actresses playing four nervous Nellies who continuously sabotage their own and each other’s happiness by hearing only the negative, or the unspoken resentment, in seemingly innocuous conversations.

About to go under the knife for liposuction, Jane Marks (Brenda Blethyn) begs her elder daughters Michelle (Catherine Keener) and Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) to look after their adopted sister Annie (Raven Goodwin), an overweight, African- American 8-year-old. This seemingly simple request becomes more detailed when Jane’s operation goes awry, requiring her to stay several days in the hospital. Against the tension of their mother’s delicate health, the sisters’ relationships with each other and their mates come into sharp focus.

Michelle, a former homecoming queen who now makes arts and crafts that nobody buys, sneers at every word uttered by her husband Bill (Clark George), finding in his simple “How was your day?” a direct attack on her unemployability. Actress Elizabeth obsesses over her “fat” arms and undesirability so much so that boyfriend Paul (James Le Gros) suggests she find another lover, preferably an actor, who can be fulfilled by such nonstop self-analysis. And Annie wishes she could strip herself of her brown flesh, to be more like Jane; for her part, Jane doesn’t seem to get the irony that, with her liposuction, she, too, is attempting to makeover her own image by shedding skin.

Told in short, impressionistic scenes, Lovely and Amazing is brutally honest in its depiction of how women sabotage their own happiness and success—not to mention their sense of sisterhood—by obsessing over a perceived lack of perfection. This is truly a women’s film in that it gives credence to issues that are important to women, and yet it’s not exactly a valentine. One can applaud its honesty while not particularly liking any of the characters.

Michelle, who admits she’s got “anger” issues, is brittle to the point that her endless “fuck you” responses to anyone from sisters to salespeople quickly lose their ability to evoke an understanding chuckle. Her “humanizing” tumble in the backseat with teenager Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) renders her momentarily less bitchy, but ultimately, she’s all hard edges and therefore very hard to warm up to.

Conversely, Elizabeth’s lack of edge, her utter softness, is tiring almost from the get-go. Are we supposed to believe that such a case of low self-esteem can successfully maneuver the casting calls required to be a rising actress? Jane wallows in her pain and fantasizes that her lipo doc has the hots for her, seemingly oblivious to the very real problems faced by Annie, the black outsider in a family of whiny white Jewesses.

For her part, Annie displays the devilish trait of calling things for what they are, but she’s treated as more of an oddity, a cause to be taken up, like one of the stray dogs Elizabeth is always rescuing. Somehow, we’re supposed to buy into the idea that these characters are, individually and as a group, lovely and amazing because of their idiosyncrasies. No matter how in-tune Holofcener’s ear is to the way we speak and process information, it’s a hard concept to grasp.

On Top of the Waves

Blue Crush
Directed by John Stockwell

The poster says it all: Tan, slim, barely-out-of-their-teens surfer babes in bikinis. And the premise—surfer babe rides the big one—doesn’t promise much, except maybe to Baywatch fans and Maxim readers. Yet Blue Crush, which certainly doesn’t shy away from glistening-skin shots, is a surprisingly well-rounded (no pun intended) blend of adrenaline-pumping action and down-to-earth drama. The film is set on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu, and it’s the waves that are unbelievably bodacious. The women look real.

And the surfer babe is no bimbo. Anne Marie (a gleamingly photogenic Kate Bosworth) lives to surf, but she takes the responsibility of raising her rebellious younger sister seriously. She and her two roommates (Michelle Rodriguez and Sanoe Lake) work as hotel maids, cleaning up the vomit (and worse) left behind by high-rolling guests. They barely make enough to pay the rent on their beachfront shanty. And Anne Marie doesn’t party because she’s in training for a master surfing competition called the Pipe, named after the biggest and baddest wave in the world. Training may be a day at the beach, but it also requires discipline: Surfers who ride the Pipe don’t always make it back. Some of the film’s most thrilling shots occur underwater, as dismounted surfers are pounded deeper below the surface by succeeding waves.

Adapted from the magazine article “Surf Girls of Maui,” Blue Crush revels in the colorful surfer subculture, exposing its camaraderie and rivalries with zest, if not subtlety. The film doesn’t make a big deal out its racially mixed cliques of Hawaiians, Hispanics and whites, smartly focusing instead on the class divisions of a resort economy. (The island’s wage slaves jealously protect their hidden lagoon from encroaching tourists.) John Stockwell, director of the deftly heartfelt teen romance Crazy/Beautiful, has a way of making stock cliches meaningful by giving his characters fresh and relevant qualities; the girls of Blue Crush have a homegrown tomboy feminism that keeps the film grounded. The three roommates are amusingly scornful of “Baywatch Barbies” and the female accessories who accompany the overpaid athletes staying at the hotel. Their rough-and-tumble attitude enlivens the underdog-with-big-dreams plot, made familiar by Saturday Night Fever (also adapted from a magazine article) and its many subcultural successors.

Anne Marie’s less-than-searing conflict comes from her romance with one of the athletes, Matt Tollman (Matthew Davis), a charming football quarterback who overpays her for surfing lessons. The romance may be a contrived stumbling block to Anne Marie’s lifelong dream of winning the Pipe, but the relationship also evidences some nicely low-key realism: Anne Marie is aware that Matt is merely “slumming.” Blue Crush also draws a distinction between pampered pro athletes and scrambling extreme-sports athletes like Anne Marie, leading to some good-natured visual humor. Stockwell gets every pound of physical comedy out of a couple of hulking linebackers (it’s inevitable that one of them will don a grass skirt and do the hula).

What it all comes down to, of course, are the spectacular surfing scenes, which capture the thrills and risks of the sport with the intensity of a National Geographic special. These rapturous sequences of whip-taut bodies frolicking on typhoon-sized waves go on for too long, and don’t quite compensate for the film’s lack of dramatic impact. But thanks to its likeable surf girls, Blue Crush is more than just a Pipe dream.

—Ann Morrow

Lunar Eclipse

The Adventures of Pluto Nash
Directed by Ron Underwood

Nothing in this bewildering failure is bad enough to send people screaming for the exits. Likewise, nothing in The Adventures of Pluto Nash is good enough to draw an audience in the first place. It’s a mishmash of comedy, science fiction and action, lacking the wit to be funny, the imagination to be interesting, or the pace to be thrilling.

Eddie Murphy is Pluto Nash, a former smuggler turned club owner, on the moon, circa 2080. Peculiar that they should set the action in that particular year, as the film does suggest the ’80s—the 1980s, that is. Pluto’s club has the same candy-colored neon, post-industrial look as the joints Murphy haunted in 48 Hrs. The dance music on soundtrack is decidedly hiphop lite, and wouldn’t have sounded out of place in Beverly Hills Cop. The settings are a scrubbed-up redux of the look of Peter Hyams’ 1981 space colony flick Outland, with the usual flourishes lifted from Blade Runner. The only truly modern aspects of The Adventures of Pluto Nash are the numerous product placements.

Pluto is supposed to be wily and suave. A mysterious multibillionaire sends a pair of hoods to buy his club; Pluto is surprised when, after turning down the offer, the gangsters blow up the club and try to kill him. He’s surprised when his “secure” internet connection is traced by the bad guys. He’s surprised when the cops turn out to be on the take. In fact, he’s totally flummoxed by any movie cliché the filmmakers throw his way.

No one thought to write any zippy one-liners for Eddie Murphy, either. You might think this would have had a higher priority. One could forgive the pointlessness of the plot if Pluto Nash were made to be in on the joke. Instead, Pluto can’t even follow the plot.

Director Ron Underwood (City Slickers) must have sensed how hopeless the script was, as he overcompensated in the casting. Randy Quaid, Joe Pantoliano and Peter Boyle have sizable roles, while Pam Grier, John Cleese, Illeana Douglas, Burt Young and Jay Mohr make short but significant appearences. (Mohr is hilarious as a Sinatra-style lounge singer.) None of this fine casting helps. Rosario Dawson, as Murphy’s fetching love interest, seems interested only in Luis Guzman’s endearingly vulgar smuggler. Eddie Murphy returns the compliment; he’s barely aware that Dawson’s in the film.

As noted, none of this matters. The Adventures of Pluto Nash isn’t even bad enough to be annoyed with.

—Shawn Stone

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