She's got a binary smile: On/Off. Being John Malkovich made those choppers famous in indie circles; now Catherine Keener is baring them in studio efforts like Death to Smoochy and Simone (due Aug. 23). For a beautiful 41-year-old actress who made her film debut in 1986's About Last Night . . . , Keener perhaps had the good fortune not to be discovered at a young age like indie It Girls Parker Posey and Christina Ricci. Indeed, in both Full Frontal and Lovely & Amazing, her mature sex appeal can't be separated from the discontents of an ambivalent grown woman.
In Lovely, Keener's Michelle combines self-pity, vanity, laziness, and hostility in equal measure. Bored with her (cheating) husband and motherhood, half-heartedly attempting to sell the artsy-craftsy trinkets she makes, Michelle seethes with unrealized potential. The former homecoming queen is shocked to learn that a high-school-dork friend is now a pediatrician. She can't stand the inversion of status, then later muses, "Sometimes I think I used to be nicer."
And younger. There's a twofold sense of loss driving Michelle's reckless behavior, so it's no surprise that she should take a teenage lover (Jake Gyllenhaal). Likewise, Keener's unhappily married character in Frontal, Lee, embarks on a dead-end affair that also seems an acting-out rooted in problems deeper than just her husband.
Both women turn their self-dissatisfactions against others, and Keener gives both a suitably nasty edge. Lee's an out-and-out sadist, while Michelle's only response to being cursed by an 8-year-old is to shoot back, "Fuck you!" (Hardly a teachable moment.)
Yet attention-starved Michelle will also suddenly spring her dazzling smile at a guy, desperate to re-experience her youthful flirtatious power. But the guy ignores her, and the smile snaps off; back comes the bitterness and anger that Hollywood rarely allows its leading ladies.
That's Keener: the new Queen of Self-Disesteem.