James Gandolfini was such a good actor that as you watch the new movie "Enough Said" -- and fall in love with his funny and endearing character, Albert -- you can actually forget for long chunks of screen time that the real man is gone.
Longtime fans of the Bergen County native may approach the film with a vague sense of dread, as I did, wondering: Will this romantic comedy be hard to watch, knowing that he'll never get to see the reaction to his own work in his last leading role? (Initially, yes.) Will I be able to enjoy the movie despite that? (Definitely, yes.) Will I watch it through tear-filled eyes? (At times, perhaps.)
"Enough Said," which premiered earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival -- to "applause and sniffles," as one reporter present put it -- and opens in theaters this week, is a delightful little movie. It's about two middle-aged divorced people - - Eva and Albert -- who meet at a party and hit it off. Both are facing empty nests, each with a daughter who is about to start college far away from home. Both enjoy each other's humor and company. And both, it turns out, have something else in common: Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a masseuse and one of her clients is Marianne (Catherine Keener), a self-involved poet who happens to be Albert's ex-wife.
Eva does not realize this at first. It's only after she's been seeing Albert long enough to really like him that she puts it together. And then, she decides to tell her best friend (Toni Collette) but not tell Albert, while she listens to Marianne complain about Albert, and even goads her into sharing details about why their marriage ended.
And the more Eva listens to Marianne's grievances about her "loser" ex -- among other things, she says he was fat, unambitious and clumsy in bed -- the more Eva starts to question herself and to look at Albert in a different light, even as the audience comes to view Marianne as the true loser.
Louis-Dreyfus' comic skills are well known, and she also has quite a few lovely dramatic moments in the film. Gandolfini is terrific as Albert, who's also a funny guy, in an understated way. Those of us who watched him on "The Sopranos" know that Gandolfini's Tony Soprano could be hilarious. But Tony mostly wasn't aware that he was being funny. Albert is.
What's really touching is Albert's gentleness and tenderness, and when the truth ultimately comes out about what Eva knows, Gandolfini does a wonderful job of showing us Albert's wounded heart and pride. (He did the same as Vinnie, Geena Davis' jilted lover and baby daddy, in the 1994 film "Angie.")
Gandolfini, who grew up in Westwood and Park Ridge, loses himself in Albert. The only time I thought of the man behind the role was when the characters talked about Albert being overweight and loving food too much. It was hard not to think of some of the stories people wrote about Gandolfini's final meals in Rome before he suffered a fatal heart attack there June 19. And that led to distracting thoughts of what might have been.
We'll be reminded again of his loss during Sunday night's 65th Emmy Awards telecast on CBS. The network announced Monday that, in addition to the annual "In Memoriam" segment, Gandolfini will be among five industry greats who will get "special recognition" during this year's telecast. His "Sopranos" co-star, Edie Falco, will remember the man who played her television husband for six seasons.
Gandolfini's final film, the crime drama "Animal Rescue," is due out next year. In it, he plays a New York City bar owner.
"Enough Said" -- his next-to-last movie -- was filmed in Los Angeles in August and September of 2012. When the film ends, a black title card says simply, "For Jim." It's a lovely tribute, fitting for a great but humble man.
Last month, Nicole Holofcener, who wrote and directed "Enough Said," talked to Entertainment Weekly about what it was like working with Gandolfini on the film.
"He would become pretty focused and serious," said Holofcener, adding that the actor, a "complex person," would ask a lot of questions. "Jim, I think, didn't have a lot of confidence in himself comedically, which is a shame because he was very funny, and his timing was wonderful. ... I wish that I could work with him again."
Louis-Dreyfus also praised her co-star in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times.
"I liked him right away," Louis-Dreyfus says of Gandolfini, who was 51 when he died. "What was so fascinating to me immediately was that he's a very mild, dear, thoughtful fellow, very much like the character he plays in the film. He isn't like Tony Soprano at all, even though he sure looks like Tony Soprano."
"Jim was so nervous," Louis-Dreyfus says, "because it was outside his comfort zone in a way. But he's extraordinary in it. I'm so happy people are going to see this aspect of him. It's a gorgeous performance."
On Monday night, Fox Searchlight held a star-studded premiere in Manhattan. Along with the movie's stars, director and producers, those slated to walk the red carpet included old pals like Terence Winter, creator of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," who was an Emmy- winning writer-producer on "The Sopranos."
Asked last week if he thought it would be hard to watch "Enough Said," Winter said, "I'm sure it's going to be very bittersweet. I really love the guy and I miss him already. It's going to be wonderful seeing him and how warm and funny and talented he is, but I know it's going to be tinged with sadness, knowing that he's not around to laugh alongside me."
Winter summed it up in a way that will probably hold true for most Gandolfini fans: "I'm sure it's going to be wonderful in a lot of ways, and difficult in others."
Gone but not forgotten
Is James Gandolfini's performance in "Enough Said" good enough to earn an Academy Award nomination? That won't be determined until January, but if so he'll join a bittersweet list of actors to earn posthumous Oscar nods. The list includes:
Died: Jan. 22, 2008
Oscar: Won best supporting actorfor "The Dark Knight"
Died: Jan. 14, 1977
Oscar: Won best actor for "Network"
Died: Jan. 10, 1967
Oscar: Nominated for best actor for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"
Died: Sept. 30, 1955
Oscar: Nominated for best actor for "East of Eden" and "Giant"
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