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The prologue of “Walking and Talking” shows two preteen girls intently studying The Joy of Sex, and we somehow suspect that when they grow up, sex will be more of a joy to one than to the other. We are right. As the story resumes, the characters, now thirty something, are still best friends. But then Laura's boyfriend proposes marriage, and her first thought is that Amelia is not going to be thrilled at this news.
Amelia (Catherine Keener) is a smart, good-looking brunet who for some reason is not lucky at love. She was going with a guy, and they are still friends, and sometimes they try to reconstruct why they held back from a commitment, but they can't quite remember. Maybe it has something to do with the way he borrows money from her to pay for phone sex. Now she finds herself making small talk with the clerk at the video store, who eventually gets up the nerve to ask her out on a date--to a monster-movie fan convention.
Laura (Anne Heche) is more confident of her future. Her fiancé, Frank (Todd Field), designs costume jewelry, hates most of his work, but hopes to do better. He is also curiously detached some of the time, and we begin to wonder about him, especially when he refuses to have the doctor look at a mole on his shoulder. Is he harboring a deadly disease? One of the gifts of “Walking and Talking” is that it remains subtle and gentle about that possibility and others. Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, it is not a soap opera or a melodrama, and many of our fears, about Frank and others, do not materialize.
One thing I like about the film is the way it teasingly introduces elements that, in other films, would lead to big dramatic formulas, and then sidesteps them.
Amelia, the central character, is not a desperate woman but simply a person of reasonable intelligence who stands on the sidelines and watches the sweethearts on parade. What is she doing wrong? Nothing. She looks perfectly dateable to us. But when even the video clerk doesn't call her back, she begins to despair.
The clerk, whose name is Bill (Kevin Corrigan), is one of the treasures of “Walking and Talking.” We have met people exactly like him. He doesn't talk fast, but he thinks before he talks and is not as much of a nerd as his tastes in movies would imply. “You're really pretty,” he tells Amelia at one point, and then adds: “You look like you really need to hear it.” He has a good reason for not calling her back, which the movie handles wonderfully in a scene where Amelia finally confronts him in the video store.
No big events take place in “Walking and Talking.” Laura begins to plan her wedding. Amelia helps her. There is the obligatory crisis in which the engaged couple have a big fight and stop talking to each other. There are sweet scenes where Amelia and her ex-boyfriend Andrew (Liev Schreiber) get together, wistfully, to remember that they were once in love. They also spend the day with his father, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. And we see Laura at work: She is a therapist who, on the eve of marriage, begins to panic about commitment and to toy with the idea of an affair with one of her patients. She even goes to see him in a play. He is a very bad actor. That is a relief.
How did I feel at the end of “Walking and Talking”? The earth didn't shake, and I didn't feel in the presence of great cinema, but I felt cheerful, as if I had gone through some fraught times with good friends and we had emerged intact. And I found myself remembering Bill, the video clerk and Fangoria reader, and wondering how his book is coming along. He's writing the life of Colette.