Sunday, July 12, 2009

Signatures: Lisa Kudrow

Adam of Club Silencio here with another look at my favorite actresses and their distinguishing claims to fame.

Dede: God. How does a woman get so bitter?

Lucia: Observation.

--The Opposite of Sex (1998)

My own bitter observation: "TV actresses" never get the love they deserve until they make that stealthy transition to the silver screen. Some may never get their due respect; like a Sarah Michelle Gellar - whose physical, comic and crushing turn as Buffy would ascend the cinematic heights of... magic crustaceans and dead Japanese kids baring the grudge of a Hollywood remake. (That was Bitter Observation #2.) For every damning P.S. I Love You, there's still Lisa Kudrow's savory sense of humor underlying all that manufactured bliss - and Hilary Swank being "girly and fun" (no one's buying it Warner Brothers.) Kudrow's characters balance well between TV and film. Either they're so confidently clueless that they couldn't care less, or they're so hyper aware they'll do just about anything to alter their situation. Kudrow's best moments come when placed at that delicate cusp of self awareness. Even her ditsiest selves have dreams wherein they know the formula for glue.

Lisa's sardonic strengths hit so masterfully under the radar and always for maximum effect. There's an understated intellect and biting wit even in her most deluded variations. Cherish is the word I'd use to describe her sublime performance on The Comeback. Valerie Cherish is a divinely humble creation; a washed-up sitcom star making her prestigious (but only to herself) return to the dregs of network TV. She even has her own reality show, but in her strict attempt to avoid any reality, it eventually hits her much like a cupcake shooting a low blow to the stomach. Sweet, painful... satisfying.

"A cupcake's never funny the second time. Never."

Hers is the subtly sweet, knockout punch that will give you "the rare double vomit." Valerie may not have her dignity, but maybe just enough fame to forego that worry for one more TV season -- exactly when this series was canceled (Bitter Observation #3). Behind Kudrow's every gesture is a pointed but understated truth, and it probably helps that Kudrow had a hand in the astute writing. Any attempt by Valerie to hide something becomes her greatest exposure. It's so befitting (and ironic) then that her catchphrase is, "I don't want to SEE that!"

Likewise her hysterical collaborations with writer/director Don Roos continually tap into that same inner judgment, and translates her talents so well to the big screen. If her characters are now too bitter or jaded to be bound by network standards, at least they get their cinematic happy endings. Like Lucia of The Opposite of Sex, who so desperately wants to meet someone who'll love and shampoo her, but would never utter the word "love" without a shudder down the spine and convulsive snide remark. Or Mamie of Happy Endings whose job at an abortion clinic is more or less therapy for giving away her stepbrother's baby; that bitterness is undercut with some real soul and sympathy. She gives these characters their world-weary backbone.

"Back Brace Girls"
left: Michele Weinberger, right: Valerie Cherish

Web Therapy
, Kudrow and Don Roos' latest collaboration, is another painfully bracing comedy about yet another woman on that path of excruciating self-discovery. Meet Fiona Wallace, a therapist bored with anything beyond three-minute sessions, who needs patients who can launch her pitiful online career. The slow burn of the web series is an evolving character comedy of a person so selfish, so disparaging, that her act of observing others becomes all about her own reveal. Secrets and truths are exposed, wounds are opened and salted, and we haven't even gotten to her patients.

Whenever moments are almost too painful to watch, Lisa Kudrow ensures it's Must See TV.

[editors note: Web Therapy is also now available on iTunes]


Clarence C. said...

Yes Yes!! Lisa Kudrow is by far THE BEST ACTRESS out of the Friends cast! No denying that. And she was the only thing I liked about PS I Love You *aside from the scenery of course* Anywhoo. She's amazing and thank you for doing a piece on her :) (BTW for some reason I had a little liking Hilary Swank in PS I Love You despite her...manliness.)

Erin said...

Anyone got love for Romy and Michele's High School Reunion? That movie's freaking hilarious.

Bailey said...

Omg, I LOVE Lisa Kudrow! I have always felt a sort of kindred spirit with her, as she is a fellow Vassar Gal. That hit on all my favorite roles of hers.

Romy and Michele's High School Reunion is one of my all-time favorite movies. Sooo quotable! ("Yeah, well...I hope your babies look like monkeys!" "Do you have some sort of business woman special?")

The Comeback was truly too short-lived at only one season. Valerie Cherish is what Larry David only wishes he were. So cringe-inducing. Aunt Sassy was an amazingly humiliating and hilarious role for her to endure.

The Opposite of Sex is great too, even though I think the movie kind of falls apart in the second half. I haven't seen Happy Endings or that web series, I'll have to check them out. Thanks!


I got plenty of love for Romy & Michele. so so funny. I think Kudrow is amazingly good in Don Roos' films but I do worry a little bit about how sour she comes off sometimes overall.

I remember while watching KABLUEY (funny movie) I was just like "lisa... have you ever been happy. EVER?"

and when you combine that with the way she soured as Friends progressed (Phoebe definitely got bitchier as the years wore on) it's worrisome.

but again, Adam, great job.


oh and i second the Happy Endings recommendation. it's very interesting movie and I think it's Maggie Gyllenhaal's all time best performance (which is saying a lot)

p.s. i hadn't heard of this web series. will have to check out.

Glenn Dunks said...

She doesn't get anywhere near enough love. She should be an Oscar nominee to go along with her Emmy win. So good in The Opposite of Sex. It's a shame major directors don't want to work with her (or maybe she just doesn't want to?) I remember thinking her career was going to be huge at that time she had Friends, Romy and Michelle (so funny) and The Opposite of Sex, but it never eventuated. Such a shame.

Guy Lodge said...

Glad to read a formal appreciation of a really undervalued talent. I was always fascinated by the way Phoebe changed the most of any character throughout the run of Friends -- as Nat says, her hippy-schtick became increasingly aggressive and insecure.

Most interestingly, it's a change that seemed to come about from her choices as an actor, rather than those of the writers -- who kept feeding her daffy lines, only for her to switch up the emphasis to mordant effect. She's quite unsettling and really rather brilliant in the later series.

Wayne B said...

Thanks for highlighting one of the best comedic actresses of the past two decades. Kudrow is sublime.

notanotherblog said...

I was always more of a Jennifer Aniston fan (Friends with Money), but I guess I'll have to check out Lisa's oeuvre.

Janice said...

Do check out The Opposite of Sex, notanotherblog - she's brilliantly, quietly devastating in it.

Adam said...

I agree on Phoebe's descent into anger, but it still beats the descent into crazy annoyance that was Monica and Chandler. She was my fav of the "Friends" certainly, better still as Valerie on "The Comeback," which is one of those great TV roles and performances to go alongside David Brent.

I see what you mean, Nat, about her sourness, but when I think of those roles, that seems all too essential. And it must just be her nature since several of these parts were written specifically for her. Like "Happy Endings" for example, which I think at least tries to include a few moments of sweet flirtation. (And agreed, Maggie Gyllenhaal's absolute best work to date.) I'll take a hit of her bitterness anyday.