Cinema Signal:

A 5-step guide to marriage and family

. "Lovely and Amazing"

This forgettable title is a series of vignettes that starts out as disparate episodes but coalesces into a portrait of a family. It includes a mother, two adult daughters and an adopted daughter of minor years whose errors in judgement are on the scale of adulthood.

Jane Marks (Brenda Blethyn), the mom, is not so concerned about the fat on her body that she's about to join a health club, but she is sufficiently concerned to seek the help of Dr. Crane (Michael Nouri), a plastic surgeon. It helps that she considers him attractive enough to merit as much flirtation as she can muster amidst the bandages and bedsheets.

Daughter Michelle (Catherine Keener) is a former homecoming queen who is in a testy marriage one might think is on the brink, who tries to sell her handmade constructions at outlet stores. This is not only to help the marriage but to satisfy her own aesthetic needs. But, an artist's lot is a sad one, full of rejection and disappointment and, in a fit of practicality, she settles on a more regular pay day as a one-day photo clerk. This leads to a comically tragic affair with her teenage 'boss' (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Daughter Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) is the trim, sexy one whose adventures as an aspiring actress brings her into an audition with the A-list handsome actor (Dermot Mulroney) to test her for sexiness. She fails, but a chance encounter with him in a supermarket leads straight to bed. In a bid for ultimate quirkiness and, perhaps, some box office fuel, writer-director Nicole Holofcener has her posing before her lover (full frontal nudity) for a critique on her physical attibutes and deficiencies. One wonders where the concept for this bit of overtness was born.

Finally, there's daughter Annie (Raven Goodwin), an eight year old brat of African-American descent. This part was inspired by an adoption in Holofcener's family, so we suspect that's a clue as to the inspiration for all the film's components, including that nude, self flogging moment. And while the interracial element of this character adds to the complex matrix of a family in a believable and unusual way, anything sympathetic about how this character was written is simply missing.

This is autobiographical, personal filmmaking that works because it clings to the notions and characteristics of a family that is at heart tightly knit and caring... and because of lovely and amazing casting.

But, we don't think that's the derivation of the title -- a title so bad it's not worth reflecting on.

Keener is as captivatingly interesting an actress as there is, for all her tics, tricks and mannerisms. She just makes them work in her own inimitable context. Mortimer, last seen in "Elizabeth" and "Scream 3", is, perhaps because of this performance, about to take a place on the world's screens. She's as charismatic as she is solidly beautiful and you won't forget her. Take a reviewer's word: the current recognition of this Oxford graduate's talent is going to lead her into fascinating places.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Catherine Keener has eyes for young Jake Gyllenhaal

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