Julia Louis-Dreyfus is one of those actresses that still feels like a well-kept secret. Despite starring on Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld, The New Adventures of Old Christine, and Veep, she still feels so fresh and different that you’re sure you’ve discovered her for the first time. The idea to pair up with James Gandolfini, her male equivalent in fresh and different, was a casting coup for the ages.
Louis-Dreyfus stars as Eva, a divorced mother who has all but given up on the dating scene. One night at a party she meets tall, stout, and not-altogether-unappealing in Albert (Gandolfini). The two don’t suffer from being a cute couple that the audience can neither stand nor relate to. They’re a bit awkward together—in the way real people are. They don’t engage in witty banter from a screenwriter’s pen but find humor in the world around them—in the way real people do. This is a romantic comedy steeped in reality and like its stars that makes it feel refreshingly new.
There are complications that come from this relationship, of course. Eva is not sure she’s really physically attracted to Albert, and when this finally gets voiced it’s brutal for the audience. Gandolfini plays it with a quiet dignity. He doesn’t cry or fly into a rage. He behaves as an adult. Eva gets sideswiped as well by Albert’s daughter.
I guess one might call this a romantic comedy, but there’s deep pain on display here. Eva, Albert, their exes, their kids, and pretty much everyone they encounter at times feels alone and is scared too death by the feeling. They want to latch onto someone else to stay the feeling as long as possible, but that introduces the fear of being hurt emotionally. What to do? If that sounds like a fairly universal question—it is. Director Nicole Holofcener wisely wraps the philosophical in digestible romantic comedy trappings. I was not a huge fan of her previous film, Please Give, despite an equally talented cast. Here I think she is defter with the balancing of pain and pleasure.
There is a sadness that pervades the film knowing that this is Gandolfini’s final major role. He’s so at ease here we are reticent to consider what might have been. For many he will always be Tony Soprano, and in that role he often bemoaned whatever happened to Gary Cooper? In his final role, we catch a glimpse of Cooper back on screen.