Film Is in the Details

Nicole Holofcener sits at an elegantly set table in the nearly deserted Mayfair Grill and studies the cover of the press kit for her engaging new movie Walking and Talking. It's the first time that the fledgling writer-director, in the midst of a whirlwind multi-city publicity tour, has seen the kit (her distributor, Miramax, unexpectedly moved up the film's release date, touching off a panic over unfinished promotional materials such as this press kit, not to mention posters and the coming attractions trailer), and she is pleasantly surprised. The cover photo, which will also be used for newspaper and magazine ads, has been successfully computer-retouched to darken the hair of the film's star, Catherine Keener, as well as to make Keener's butt look smaller. Not that the actress's posterior was particularly large to begin with, but the angle from which the picture was shot made it seem so. And Keener had just cut and lightened her hair prior to the photo shoot; Holofcener had been afraid that audiences wouldn't recognize Keener unless the photo was doctored to match the actress's look in the film.

Details. Holofcener is obsessed with them, and it is attention to detail that distinguishes her debut feature film from dozens of other young-New Yorkers-in-love movies. The frail-looking, almond-eyed filmmaker captures and selectively amplifies the quirks and oft-overlooked nuances of dialogue that make her romantically challenged characters unique.

Best friends since sixth grade, Amelia (Keener, who follows her well-received turn in Living in Oblivion with a winning comic-neurotic performance here) and Laura (The Juror's Anne Heche) have maintained such a close relationship that they even share joint possession of a cat, Big Jeans. But now, as the women brace for their thirties, things have begun to change. Just as Amelia decides she has finally gotten over her obsession with her ex-lover Andrew (Liev Schreiber) enough to wean herself from her weekly therapy sessions, Laura -- an aspiring counselor who presumably got plenty of practice with her best friend -- announces that she has agreed to marry her long-time boyfriend Frank (Todd Field). Even as Amelia reels from the news that she is about to drop from first to second most important person in Laura's life, Amelia's former-paramour-turned-platonic-pal Andrew confides that he's conducting a passionate, erotic long-distance relationship over the telephone. (Presumably the ingratiating Schreiber has had plenty of practice for the part; he also played a phone sex romeo in his last film, Denise Calls Up.) But while her best friend's and her ex-beau's love lives heat up, Amelia's goes cold, reaching a new low when she gets dumped by creepy but endearing video store clerk Bill (Kevin Corrigan), whom Amelia and Laura refer to as "Ugly Guy," and whom Amelia consents to go out with only after consciously deciding to lower her standards and "date down." When the vet recommends that she put Big Jeans to sleep, Amelia comes perilously close to cracking up. That's when Laura, whose sickeningly sweet relationship with Frank seemed rock-solid, reveals that she's not only having second thoughts about marriage, but that she's entertaining the notion of having an affair with a dippy but cute actor-waiter who works at the cafe she and Amelia frequent.

If Woody Allen were a thirtysomething female, Annie Hall might have turned out a lot like Walking and Talking. Holofcener populates her film with less affluent variations of the insecure, self-absorbed Manhattanites who inhabit Allen's movies. Like Allen, Holofcener gleans most of her material from shrewd observations of everyday life. The writer-director admits that while the character of Amelia isn't 100 percent autobiographical, many of her experiences mirror Holocener's own. (The press kit claims the story was "pulled from the pages of Nicole's diaries written while she was single and living in New York"; Holofcener terms that an "exaggeration.")

"The main plot is autobiographical," Holofcener relates in a soft, halting voice. "It's based upon a time when my friend was getting married and I was very single. Very single. Having lots of lousy relationships. Quite conscious of being single. And I was afraid that I would lose her, that she didn't need me as much as I needed her. I didn't react well to this -- probably because my parents got divorced when I was one or something. I felt I was being replaced, that she had a new best friend. And she did -- it's the natural order of things."

But many of the similarities between motion picture and real life end there. You can forgive the film's publicists for assuming that the autobiographical thread must have run deeper; Walking and Talking feels genuine, and its characters face universally recognizable dilemmas. But Holofcener adamantly maintains that "a lot of it is made up. Things that happen in the movie didn't really happen." In the film, for example, tension arises from Amelia's and Frank's view of each other as competitors for Laura's affection. In reality, Holofcener and her best friend's husband "hit it off right away, which was a big relief," the filmmaker recalls. "His character is nothing like Frank's character."

Nor did Holofcener witness any of her single friends' crises or insecurities when she got married. "I was kind of the last to go," the filmmaker chuckles.

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