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Film review: James Gandolfini bows out on a sweet high in Enough Said

Nicole Holofcener, 93mins. Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini (12A)

The writer-director Nicole Holofcener is one of US indie cinema's most idiosyncratic miniaturists. Her films, which she makes at the rate of one every three or four years, are small scale, delicately observed comedy-dramas that look at relationships in a very barbed way. Enough Said, her fifth feature since her debut in 1996 with Walking and Talking, is typical of her work both in its slow-burning humour and in its forensic probing into its middle-aged protagonists' many insecurities. This is sly, witty fare, even if the behaviour of its self-absorbed characters begins to grate.

The film features James Gandolfini's final leading role before his untimely death earlier this summer. He gives a very likable and understated performance as Albert, a divorcee despised by his former wife for his slobbishness and ineptitude in bed. Above all, his ex couldn't stand the way he ate guacamole, always pushing the bits of onion to the side so that he could savour the avocado. (These are the kind of throwaway details other film-makers ignore but that Holofcener always hones in on.)

Albert is first spotted at a poolside party in LA. Divorced single mom Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is reluctantly attending this event and freely admits that she doesn't find any of the men there attractive. Albert, though, piques her curiosity. Eva is a masseuse. We see montages of her attending to her various clients, kneading their doughy skin. Some are old men with foul breath. Some are gossiping LA housewives. She has to lug her massage table all over town. Her male friends inevitably joke about her line of work. "Do all the guys get boners?" one inevitably asks.

Louis-Dreyfus is a very accomplished comedian who spent many years on Seinfeld. She plays Eva with a smile almost permanently affixed on her face. This smile stays there when she is happy, depressed or even when she embarrasses herself. So does the energy and repartee. It's an engaging comic turn, albeit one arguably better suited for a sitcom than a feature-length drama.

Eva begins a relationship with Gandolfini's Albert, won over by his self-deprecating humour and a cynicism which chimes with her own. At the same time, she has just found herself a new client and friend, Marianne (Catherine Keener), a fellow divorcee who regales her with stories about the awfulness of her former husband. Only very slowly does Eva realise the man being described is none other than... her very own Albert.

Enough Said is shot in conventional fashion in LA locations familiar from dozens of sitcoms and dramas. The surface blandness is belied by the caustic nature of Holofcener's screenplay. In her films, she deals with everything from her characters' hang-ups about class and race to their physical shortcomings. Here, we learn about Gandolfini's ear hair and his foghorn of a voice whenever he tries to whisper. He's a glutton who binges on heavily buttered popcorn. For all her cheeriness, Eva herself is deceitful and manipulative. Keener (who has appeared in all of Holofcener's movies) has an off-putting hauteur as Marianne, the successful writer.

The minor characters are also frequently obnoxious. Eva's best friend, the therapist Sarah (Toni Collette), is in a running battle with her maid, whom she is desperate to sack. Sarah's husband, Will (Ben Falcone), cracks sexist jokes. The teenage children, about to go to college, are needy and conceited. They bring out anxiety in their parents, who can't come to terms with the fact that they're about to leave home.

In their behaviour and attitudes, Holofcener's protagonists are akin to those in her fellow director Todd Solondz's misanthropic chronicles of American family life. The difference is that Holofcener has an affection for her characters that never entirely dissipates. Here, the scenes between Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini have real warmth.

In one very funny scene, Holofcener shows the couple scrutinising their feet. In another, Albert invites Eva to his home. He is dressed informally in T-shirt and pyjamas and doesn't realise that, as she quickly tells him, "I can see your penis." This echoes the famous moment in Holofcener's earlier film Lovely and Amazing in which Dermot Mulroney's character looks over Emily Mortimer's naked body and appraises it as if he is looking over livestock. "You're definitely on the skinny side..."

The writer-director has long acknowledged that her films draw closely on her own experiences and those of her friends. If this is the case, she has no compunction about exposing their (and her own) affectations and delusions.

Her screenplay for Enough Said makes the point that when a relationship breaks down, former lovers and spouses will give radically different explanations as to what went wrong. Eva's original, optimistic view of Albert is almost fatally undermined by the venomous accounts his former wife gives of his shortcomings ("Terrible in bed, clumsy, no sense of humour."). Gandolfini plays Albert as a man painfully aware of his own bad habits. After being harangued for so long about everything from his diet to the way he leaves clutter in his bedroom, he can hardly be blamed if he has an inferiority complex. At the same time, he is equally perceptive about the motives of those who denigrate him.

In the two decades since her debut, Holofcener's film-making style has hardly changed. The main difference now is that her characters are no longer young lovers but are middle-aged parents with broken relationships, cellulite and kids about to leave home. The director delights in showing us their neuroses and the frequently contradictory way in which they behave. She is a subversive storyteller whose quirky little fables always have a sting in them. Enough Said is one of her slighter efforts. Helping anchor affairs, though, is the bear-like Gandolfini, who brings charm and gravitas to a movie that might otherwise have seemed very superficial.