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Keen on Keener

For a while last December, it felt like Catherine Keener was following me around. She popped up in lead and supporting roles, in one movie after another. I wish that would happen again! Ms. Keener turns 52 today, and her film career (thankfully) is going as strong as ever. She had four onscreen appearances in 2010, five if you count David O. Russell’s never-to-be-released-(probably) Nailed.

She may be best-remembered, in the years to come, as Maxine, the bitch ne plus ultra in Being John Malkovitch, but she’s also carved out a healthy little niche for herself playing sturdy, sensitive, sometimes downbeat wives and mothers. Above is a picture of her in Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give, which I proclaimed my love for a few months back. That love persists, largely thanks to Keener’s funny/sad performance as a guilt-stricken New Yorker. I love how the film encodes bitter truths in her awkward (and sardonically hilarious) interactions with those she sees as “less privileged,” like the innocuous black man above.

Kate (Keener): Excuse me, sir? Are you hungry? Would you like this?

Man: I’m waiting for a table.

In this image from Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008), Keener’s facial expression looks a lot like her embarrassment in Please Give, but it’s subtly different. That expression, I think, was a deadly cocktail of mortification and disappointment in her failed altruism; this looks more like pity with a dash of weariness and just a hint of ennui. In Synecdoche, she plays the estranged wife of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s hypochondriac theater director, and does wonders with a small, somewhat tossed-aside role.

Damn, she’s good! And consider that both these characters are 180° from Maxine. Talk about range! Clearly I need more Catherine Keener in my life. Is Cyrus any good? Or maybe I should finally check out Where the Wild Things Are. Happy birthday, Ms. Keener!

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