Jane Marks (Brenda Blethyn) is the mother of three daughters, one an adopted eight-year-old, Annie (Raven Goodwin) whose mother was a crack addict, and two grown women, Michelle (Catherine Keener), who is married with a daughter of her own and trying to establish herself as an artist, and Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) who is an actress, but also finding trouble making a career for herself in the industry. Where Michelle makes little craft chairs which she tries to sell to nobody's interest, Elizabeth has to undergo some humiliating processes of self-promotion, though she is pleased she will be having a movie opening soon...
Lovely & Amazing was the second full-length feature from writer and director Nicole Holofcener, and the one which began to set her in the minds of those who followed such comedies as a female Woody Allen, apparently because they shared a sharp examination of what made modern relationships tick in an metropolitan environment. That she is the stepdaughter of Charles H. Joffe only underlined the connection, he being a long time producer on Allen's movies, but if you managed to see her work as something apart from any of the more obvious male comparisons then it's clear she has her own voice and was not prepared to simply fall back on clichés or have her characters behave like their masculine counterparts.
There was a definite female take on her characters, so much so that the men were rather neglected, being stock boyfriend or husband personas for the Marks family to concern themselves with, and all that was to do with the male gaze: the women are obsessed with how they are seen by the opposite sex. Jane, for example, thinks that as a single mother of a certain age she can be more attractive, so she plans cosmetic surgery to reduce her weight; not only that, but she thinks she now has a chance with her surgeon (Michael Nouri), something we can discern is a rather desperate wish on her part as he is nothing but professional, and that includes his distance from his patients.
Elizabeth meanwhile, being an actress, believes her face is her fortune, and her body too for that matter, which is why she is no less preoccupied with the way she looks, not accepting her boyfriend (James LeGros) can actually love her when she sees so many things wrong with her. This exasperates him so much that eventually, you guessed it, he falls out of love with her as if her perception of herself has completely turned him off, but soon she is dating another man, an actor this time (Dermot Mulroney) who is slightly dim but the star of a popular TV show. She fails an audition to star alongside him because of a lack of "chemistry", but perversely he ends up courting her which is supposed to make her feel better.
But what it actually does is lead her self-examination to fresh heights of navel-gazing, and not only the navel as the film's most famous scene has Elizabeth gently demanding Mulroney's nice but womanising actor to give her a measured critique of her body as she stands before him naked. It's a sequence which sums up all the women's self-esteem issues but also the need to be the centre of attention, as if their problems, real or imagined, will make them all the more fascinating to others rather than simply themselves. Annie has issues too, wanting to be white, eating too much, and acting up because of them, while Michelle starts an affair with twenty years younger teenager Jake Gyllenhaal when she falls out with her husband Clark Gregg, not something which is much help, as meanwhile Jane's operation lands her in a coma. Interestingly, none of them seem to learn much by the end, but Holofcener uses the characters to tell us lessons we can take to heart even if the Marks ladies do not. Maybe more dramatic than humorous, but worthwhile. Music by Craig Richey.