Never mind that it's a comedy for adults, never mind that it's understated yet grounded in everyday upper middle class life (sure it's upper middle class--many of the houses onscreen could sell for over three hundred thousand, some considerably more, though James Gandolfini's Albert still wears a shabby gray shirt and eats heavily buttered popcorn out of a bucket, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Eva still ogles the inside of some of her richer clients' houses), never mind that director Nicole Holofcener seems less interested in the plot twist (Eva dates Albert, realizes one of her clients (Marianne, played with astringent insouciance by Catherine Keener) is Albert's ex-wife) than in the softpedal interaction between the two middle-aged lovers--if you must take away one thing from the film it's this: Gandolfini manages to make chubby sexy again.
Don't quite know if it's ever happened before (Robert Mitchum's gut is too intimidating to be called 'chubby;' does late Marlon Brando count?). Watching Gandolfini onscreen he comes across as quiet, shy (Tony Soprano shy?), but when occasion demands he delivers an assured comic patter that can believably charm a woman to bed, at least on second date.
It's a small miracle in my book, and if I dwell on the subject at length you'll have to forgive me, it's also personal (check my pics on facebook if you're curious). Too many lean, buff protagonists in Hollywood movies, even when the movie is supposed to be a comedy--the default physique has long since worn its way past boring to eyepluckingly annoying. We Want Something Else--no, we want more of Something Else, preferably a size 46 and above.
Gandolfini's isn't the protagonist here; we observe him mostly secondhand, but even thusly and with the least effort he spookily makes us understand the character, despite Albert's apparent air of wanting to keep people at arm's length. The man's been hurt once too often, usually by his wife, and especially on the subject of his girth; if he's a bit gingery about admitting another woman into his life, you understand--same time you understand that his social life being what it is, he's willing to risk pain to relieve the massive loneliness. Gandolfini makes us aware of this knife edge Albert balances on, and why once the blade is upset he's not eager to climb back up again.
Perhaps the most poignant aspect of Albert is his dignity. He knows who he is, knows his value as a person, knows (even if unmentioned I'm dead certain he does) his weight down to the last ounce, how he looks with all that extra baggage hanging from his waist. He's not so much defiant towards a world that loves bulimic supermodels as he is self-contained, having achieved a pained independence--pure metal, any extraneous material burnt away in the crucible. And it's against his lonely isle of an existence that Eva's complicated life runs aground.
Albert's a piece of work (I say admiringly) but hardly the stuff of comedy, which leaves the meat and motor of the film to Louis-Dreyfus' Eva. If he entertains few illusions about himself Eva is nothing but; she's lucked into a good thing but given the opportunity takes advantage because (as she's forced to confess) "I was trying to protect myself." Only image I can come up with in response is someone running a siphon up from a septic tank into the hot bath she's enjoying--doesn't make a lot of sense, but people can't resist doing such things anyway.
There are weaknesses to the film. Keener's Marianne is a cipher, a keen disappointment considering Keener usually plays the director's alter-ego (that role was handed to Louis-Dreyfus); Eva hogs the lion's share of self-destructive behavior, leaving little for Albert unless you count his overeating--I imagine in the perfect comedy there'd be plenty to go around. But it's difficult to see where Holofcener can go trying to present more sides to Marianne without weighing down the film or padding the running time, and Albert is such a comforting bear of a presence you love him anyway (of course a filmmaker really should really push limits, same as said filmmaker should also know when to stop; the key I suppose is knowing when to do one or the other...).
Albert and Eva do have a delightful chemistry, and Holofcener's writing shows a knack for quietly quirky dialogue: Having inspected Albert's bathroom Eva notes:
"You have, like, eighty million toothbrushes."
"I only use one of them."
"Then why don't you just throw the other ones out?"
"I don't know. Because they're my friends?"
Which I think sums up what Albert's all about--you got eighty million like him in your medicine cabinet and there's no reason in the world you would hang on to him, only he's a friend.
First published in Businessworld, 9.11.14