Lovely & Amazing

Nearly everything that happens in “Lovely & Amazing” is sad & awful — or would be, if the characters didn’t react to it humorously. It’s a perfect example of the fine line between comedy and tragedy: It’s usually the same events; what’s different is how they’re treated.

Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, “Lovely & Amazing” is an apt description of most of the film’s female characters and almost none of the male ones. Michelle Marks (Catherine Keener) is a 36-year-old artist who can’t find work and doesn’t really want to. Her sister, Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), is an actress with a bit part in an upcoming film. Their mother, Jane (Brenda Blethyn), is getting liposuction. Their adopted little sister, an overweight black girl named Annie (Raven Goodwin), thinks it would be better to be white but has no qualms about being fat.

The men in their lives: Ugh. Michelle’s husband Bill (Clark Gregg) and Elizabeth’s boyfriend Paul (James LeGros) are entirely unsupportive, and Bill takes it to the next level by cheating on Michelle. Elizabeth’s potential co-star, the studly Kevin McCabe (Dermot Mulroney), is a fatuous, if well-meaning, jerk. Her agent, Cindy (Christine Mourad), is a woman but might as well be a man for the way she dresses, and for as unhelpful as she is to Elizabeth. (Unhelpful men are a theme in this movie.)

So the gals have only each other for support, and they freely give it, in person. Behind each other’s backs, they snark and gossip. These are women with self-esteem issues, which causes them to back-bite; and all the back-biting no doubt fuels the self-esteem issues, as does the parade of worthless menfolk. They sublimate their emotions, and then they come out in odd ways and at inappropriate times. They want intimacy, but they don’t feel worthy of it. They don’t realize how lovely and amazing they are.

Take Michelle, for example, who feels her greatest calling in life was in giving birth to her daughter. Or Elizabeth, who rescues stray dogs and takes care of them. Or their mom, Jane, who at age 50-something adopted a young black child whose mother was a crack addict. “She’s not lucky, she’s entitled,” Jane says, brushing off her adopting of Annie as nothing special. “Every child’s entitled to a mother.”

You want to take these women and help them feel better about themselves. They’re rough around the edges, yes — Michelle thinks the best way of dealing with any unpleasant person is to tell them to “F*** off” — but you understand it’s only because they’ve been hurt. Some love and compassion would soften those sharp corners considerably. By the end, fortunately, you feel like the women’s individual worlds have been rattled enough to wake them up.

Keener, who also starred in Holofcener’s 1996 film “Walking and Talking,” is priceless as the self-conscious, defensive Michelle. She, like everyone else, uses profanity as a weapon; this is the rare film where each swear word seems to have been chosen carefully and precisely. (I love her reaction when a craft-store owner doesn’t want to buy her specially designed wrapping paper: “Listen, Mister, this s***is pretty!”) Michelle’s relationship with a teen-age one-hour photo employee (Jake Gyllenhaal) is especially well-played by both parties.

Emily Mortimer’s performance as Elizabeth is vulnerable and fearless. A scene in which Elizabeth asks Kevin McCabe to describe all her physical flaws is achingly uncomfortable and speaks volumes about Mortimer’s commitment to the character, for all the faults named must be hers as well as Elizabeth’s.

And I can never get enough Brenda Blethyn. Again, brave and strong and fearless is she as the ladies’ sad, lonely mother.

It all sounds depressing, doesn’t it? Yet it is funny; these are funny, real people who, for all their faults, never give up and never break down. They react with self-deprecating humor to all the woes in their lives. They truly are lovely and amazing, and so is this film.

A- (1 hr., 30 min.; R, one scene of extended non-sexual nudity, frequent harsh profanity.)