James Gandolifini in ‘Enough Said’ and the Poignancy of Posthumous Performances

As the closing credits roll for Nicole Holofcener’s new romantic comedy/drama Enough Said, one scrolls up the screen starkly and sadly: “FOR JIM.” “Jim” is what friends and colleagues called James Gandolfini, the late, great character actor; this is one of two films he’d completed before his untimely death in June, and it is his final starring role. On its own, Enough Said is a sweet and charming little movie — but there’s no question the loss of its beloved leading man lends the picture extra, unexpected pathos.

Its premise is clever — commercial, even, for Holofcener, a gifted indie filmmaker whose witty and thoughtful previous efforts (including Friends with Money, Please Give, and Walking and Talking) have somehow never quite crossed over to the movie-going mainstream. Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who, incredibly, hasn’t appeared in a feature film since 1997’s Deconstructing Harry) plays Eva, a successful masseuse and divorcée whose teenage daughter is about to leave home for college. At a party, she meets Albert (Gandolfini), a divorced librarian whose own daughter is likewise preparing to flee the nest. Eva’s not initially attracted to him (“He’s kinda fat… he’s got like, this big belly”), but when they go out, she’s struck by his sweetness and sense of humor, and things start to get serious. Unfortunately, at the same party she met a new client (Catherine Keener), whom she discovers — after already hearing several earfuls about a terrible ex-husband — is Albert’s ex-wife.

This could very easily function as the set-up for a dopey rom-com of the Nancy Meyers variety, and indeed, Holofcener’s script is set within the same kind of upper-class, impeccably designed, poets-and-book-editors-and-psychiatrists milieu. But it’s a subtler and wiser movie than its peers, and Holofcener is smart enough not to overplay the situation, or to hit the obligatory beats. (Keener’s character, for example, is kind of awful, but not in any obvious ways, and there’s no big scene where someone screams that at her — because awful people are allowed to just continue being awful all the time.) Louis-Dreyfus is flat-out wonderful in the leading role, wringing every possible laugh out of her dialogue (and reactions) thanks to her razor-sharp comic timing, while playing the serious beats with equal aplomb.

And yet — and partially because of the baggage we bring into the theater — this is Gandolfini’s movie. Dialogue throughout the film echoes with unintended poignancy, and not just in lines like “I’m planning on losing some weight, by the way. I know I need to.” But take Eva’s description of her slowly blooming attraction to him: “He’s not handsome in your typical kind of way… but now I find him kinda sexy.” (I remember reading a Sarah Jessica Parker quote that went about the same way, when Sopranos mania was at its peak.)

Most strikingly, the character of Albert gives Gandolfini the opportunity to play a character with the kind of unadulterated vulnerability that made him such a relatable actor. There’s a genuine sweetness to this guy, best glimpsed in a wonderful scene, about midway through, when he gives Eva a necklace. As he looks at her wearing it, he hesitates a moment. “Maybe I shouldn’t have?” he asks. “Is it too soon?” He peers at her, those sleepy eyes filled with worry, and your heart breaks a little; the picture is full of moments like that, in which this big bear of a man plays a gentle, sensitive guy in a manner that is absolutely honest and true.

Would we respond to Enough Said so forcefully were it not Gandolfini’s final leading role? Possibly not; it might’ve merely been another entry in a thankfully versatile post-Sopranos gallery of character roles, like his busted-out hitman in Killing Them Softly, his bristling general in In The Loop, or his sensitive monster in Where the Wild Things Are. We’ll never know, any more than we’ll know whether James Dean’s turn in Rebel Without a Cause would have landed the same way had it not followed his death, or Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight, or Brandon Lee’s in The Crow. But those roles falling when they did cemented those actors’ personae, and their legacies; a posthumous performance can have a kind of otherworldly (even, yes, ghostly) quality, like one last reminder of not only who these artists were, but what they were capable of. And thus, what we lost in their too-early departures.

What’s certain is this: Albert is the kind of salt-of-the-earth nice guy that Gandolfini was said to be in real life, but seldom got to play. And the fact that someone finally gave this unconventional actor the chance to be not only a leading man, but one so warm and kind, is perhaps the greatest contribution we could ask from a modest film like Enough Said.