My favorite thing in a piece of pop culture is when a text emits humanism; more specifically, an understanding that people usually do bad things outside of the reason that they embody bad-ness. Yosujiro Ozu films, songs by The Mountain Goats, Parenthood, Hoop Dreams - these things have affected me because they, more often than not, have taught me about understanding people through the lens of grace. Or, as Roger Ebert would say, the best films exemplify empathy. Unfortunately, it’s unusual when cultural texts do this. It’s much easier to elicit a wide emotional response from audiences when characterizations are neat and tidy, when it’s obvious whose side to take and who’s not to. Enough Said, Nicole Holofcener’s 2013 film, is lovely because its empathy rejects the notion that people do mean things to each other simply because they are inherently evil.
The film is pretty straightforward: Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a divorced masseuse who meets Albert (James Gandolfini), a fellow divorcee, at a party. They’re not enamored with each other but are equally charmed enough to start seeing each other. Along with being divorced, they are both single parents about to see their teenage daughters off to college. Eva and Albert bond over their similar situations while simultaneously trying to figure out how to date again. In a sentence, the film is about the dating plights of the upper-middle-aged staring down the long hall of empty nesting.
One of Eva’s new clients, Marianne (Catherine Keener), is of the same single upper-middle-aged-dom, and through weekly appointments, the two contrive a friendship to save each other from the humdrum of single parenthood. But this relationship soon reveals itself as Enough Said’s central plot device: Marianne is Albert’s ex-wife, and whenever she’s venting about her ex-husband, she is unwittingly giving Eva privileged info about her new beau.
There’s a tacit sense that these middle-aged divorcees approach new relationships with reticence. They’re apprehensive about relationships; their recent wounds are still bothersome and taking a chance on being hurt again is risky. So, Eva takes full advantage of listening to Marianne vent about all of Albert’s shortcomings and annoying idiosyncrasies – his laziness, boring sexuality, body weight, the way he eats guacamole. She refers to her client as a Trip Advisor for relationships. While that sounds ideal, Marianne’s problems with Albert end up coloring Eva’s entire perception of him.
The dialogue and chemistry between these two incredible actors is so infectious and delightful while their characters are getting to know each other. However, once the film delves into its central conceit, it’s a bit disappointing because it focuses too much on the logistics of Eva, Marianne, and Albert’s relationships with each other. Sadly, these plot gymnastics hasten scenes between Dreyfus and Gandolfini, and we don’t get to just sit and watch them act for long periods of time. But the film ends up course correcting, more or less, before getting too far away from us.
The scenes between Eva and Albert go from absolutely charming to downright painful and awkward when Eva allows the negative sentiments (via Marianne) seep into her consciousness. Instead of getting to know this nice man, she begins to vicariously experience only the Albert that his ex-wife knew. As Eva comments on his weight in front of company or bothers him about guacamole’s calorie count, Gandolfini injects Albert with such subtle manifestations of disillusionment that looking in his eyes is like watching a car dealership blow-up man deflate on the lot. And because Eva cannot block out Marianne’s thoughts, or refuses to, the relationship quickly dissolves.
Although understood as being the destructive force of the relationship, Holofcener doesn’t frame Eva as the villain. Thankfully, the film isn’t interested in easy, stark characterizations of good and bad. Eva isn’t Lucy to Albert’s Charlie Brown. Instead, Enough Said is interested in why Eva is drawn to making these mistakes. When Albert claims she knew what to do despite making the right decision, Eva responds, saying she was scared. Because of her unsuccessful marriage, she wants to do everything she can before devoting time to something that will disband in painful fashion. Using Marianne as a way to do relationship recon appealed to her own mental health. And Holofcener understands that looking out for one’s self is important. We empathize with Eva’s interest to find out things about Albert that might not have been revealed until long into the relationship.
So, Enough Said is not about the unethical way that Eva tries to look out for her self, but that relationships are hard, and sometimes we treat each other like crap. In turn, we look for ways to selfishly salve relationships but often do more harm than good. Eva’s idea was to use Marianne as a de facto Trip Advisor for her relationship, but by learning about Albert through someone else, Eva approaches her burgeoning relationship under the false assumption that there is one, definitive way to know a person - that there is a universal set of certain flaws or annoying idiosyncrasies for each person.
Yes, Eva makes these bad decisions because she is afraid of opening herself up to more emotional ache, but additional to that worry, she (and Albert as well) is slow to start new relationships simply because she doesn’t know how to date anymore. Central to this movie is the portrayal of middle-agers – experienced lovers and parents – as people who are still trying to figure stuff out. Enough Said is about these people finding out just how little they know about love.
There’s a wonderful little shot in the middle of the film that exemplifies its thesis perhaps better than any other: while everyone is saying their goodbyes in the parking lot, after a friendly dinner out with her ex-husband and his new wife, we watch Eva staring at her ex, unbeknownst to anyone. In this short, poignant moment, Dreyfus silently evokes a compound look of sympathetic curiosity that says, “I wonder if we actually could have made it work.” Of course, the answer is no. Instead, Holocener is trying to convey a moment where we are so confused and emotionally disoriented in the present that we think failed relationships of the past actually sound comforting, because at least then, we knew where we were.