Love, naturally

James Gandolfini starred opposite Julia Louis-Dreyfus in one of his last film appearances.

James Gandolfini starred opposite Julia Louis-Dreyfus in one of his last film appearances.

Rated 4.0

It has become second nature for a struggling film actor to reinvigorate his or her career by starring in a television show. Charlie Sheen and Zooey Deschanel are obvious recent examples, and there but for the grace of quick cancellations go Robin Williams and Anna Faris in their miserable-looking new network sitcoms.

However, it is much less rare, and therefore more precious, for the star of a long-running TV show to find new life on the big screen. Once an actor becomes indelibly identified with a TV character whose story unfolds over dozens (or hundreds) of hours, finding a role in a 90-minute movie that can surmount those massive audience preconceptions is nearly impossible.

Take Bryan Cranston—this Sunday night wraps up arguably the single greatest performance in 21st-century media, but no matter what, he will always be Walter White. I’m rooting for the guy, but it’s hard to imagine his post-Breaking Bad movie career amounting to much more than a Kyle Chandler-esque pile of dads and bureaucrats.

Against all odds, writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s witty and observant Enough Said successfully reinvents a couple of successful TV stars who never quite connected on the big screen. Seinfeld ensemble member Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Eva, a divorcée massage therapist whose only daughter is about to depart for college. In one of his final roles, The Sopranos legend James Gandolfini co-stars as Albert, also divorced, unmarried and facing an empty nest for the first time.

As the film opens, Eva and Albert meet and begin a tentative courtship. Neither person made any serious attempt to find love after divorce, instead focusing on their children, so they are both entering new territory. There’s an awkward but electric tension between them, stuck somewhere between the thrill of romantic discovery and the fear that it’s not worth the trouble.

Of course, it’s bittersweet watching the recently deceased Gandolfini on screen again (the film is lovingly dedicated to him with the discreet end credit), especially when he’s so good in a role that is the polar opposite of Tony Soprano. With his salt-and-pepper beard, shy smile, and juvenile bad habits, Gandolfini’s Albert is an overgrown teddy bear, predisposed to heartbreak and self-deprecation rather than violent outbursts.

As wonderful as Gandolfini is here, Louis-Dreyfus is a revelation as the motherly yet self-denying Eva. In her first four films, Holofcener employed Catherine Keener as her muse, but after their strong first two collaborations Walking and Talking and Lovely and Amazing, the partnership seemed to stale with the less inspired Friends With Money and Please Give.

Keener is also in Enough Said, and she’s good in the smaller part of Eva’s client and confidante, but Louis-Dreyfus brings an undeniable spark to the lead role. Louis-Dreyfus is authentic in the scenes with her emotionally distant daughter, and charmingly clumsy in her scenes with Gandolfini. Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini have genuine chemistry, and their self-effacing flirtation and stumbling sexual exploration ground the film in reality without sacrificing the humor.

Louis-Dreyfus also gets the opportunity to show off her physical comedy skills, as in a running joke about Eva dragging her massive massage table up a flight of stairs while her oblivious client sips coffee. The thrill of a Holofcener joint is always in the writing, especially the intelligent dialogue and the cutting humor that inspires as many winces as guffaws.

While Enough Said delivers in those departments, the script eventually forces Eva into a silly deception that would have been more at home in Holofcener’s own TV work (she has directed episodes of Parks and Recreation and Sex in the City, among others). It only gets dumber the longer Eva has to keep up the ruse, and it’s not clear why Holofcener chose to bury the conflict in sitcom artifice.

This is where Enough Said should have crumbled to pieces, but our investment in the characters is strong enough to withstand the shakiness of the plot. At the center of that investment are the exceptional Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini, their performances offering proof of the infinite possibilities of reinvention, even beyond this mortal coil.