Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her
Rating: * * * 1/2 Director: Rodrigo Garcia Running time: 110 minutes Language: EnglishNow playing as the late show at Bunkamura Le Cinema in Shibuya

“Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her” is a sleek omnibus film, with five separate but loosely interwoven vignettes set in the San Fernando Valley. First-time director Rodrigo Garcia — son of Nobel-prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez — ties these disparate strands into one overarching fugue of loneliness and pent-up desire.

Cameron Diaz and Amy Brenneman in “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her”

This approach has been taken before, notably by directors Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson, in their symphonic, apocalyptic films of L.A., “Short Cuts” and “Magnolia.” Like those auteurs, Garcia’s smart script has attracted an all-star cast that would make other indie filmmakers green with envy: Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Cameron Diaz and Calista Flockhart.

Unlike those directors, however, Garcia brings a far cooler, emotionally subdued feel to “Things You Can Tell” Where Altman and Anderson let their films unravel like a wild and wired Coltrane solo, building to an intense emotional catharsis, Garcia’s style is more Chet Baker, muted blue tones that just roll with life’s punches.

“Things You Can Tell” drops us into the lives of five characters, all working women, all alone, and all at a point in their lives where the possibility of finding a lifelong partner is starting to seem a bit remote. Garcia uses a similar device for each of his vignettes: He goes light on the background story to each character, focusing instead on the deep, thoughtful performances of his cast to hint at where these women are emotionally. Then along comes a random encounter — with a tarot reader, a homeless woman, a child — in which each woman is nailed to a tee, all her private fears and hidden emotions read like an open book by a total stranger.

First up is Glenn Close as Dr. Elaine Keener, a successful and affluent physician. She maintains a professionally clinical demeanor, but is actually tearing herself inside-out over a fellow doctor she fancies who won’t return her calls. She requests — somewhat skeptically — a tarot reading from hippie queen Christine (Calista Flockhart). Elaine loses her poker face, though, when Christine dissects her life with laser-guided accuracy: “You’re not happy. You’re good at pretending. I think you feel that sooner or later, everyone is a disappointment.” Is it in the cards, or merely things she can tell just by . . .?

Holly Hunter plays Rebecca, a middle-aged bank manager who discovers she’s pregnant by the married man she’s having an affair with (Gregory Hines). Rebecca projects an aura of emotional invulnerability, able to coolly terminate her affair and then pick up an office colleague for a one-nighter. Her decision to abort her child is made matter-of-factly, but she’s not prepared for what happens when she slows down long enough to see her own emotional numbness.

Next up is Kathy Baker as Rose, a divorced mother who writes children’s books and is rather protective of her teenage son. While fussing over her son’s emerging sexuality, she finds herself attracted to her new neighbor Albert (Danny Woodman), a dwarf, albeit a suave and self-assured guy overall. Flockhart returns as Christine in a sequence with Valeria Golino, who plays her dying lesbian lover. They share some wistful moments in each others’ arms, recalling how they first met. Christine tries to be strong, even as she senses the loneliness that soon awaits her: The tarot-reader needs no cards to see her own sad future.

In perhaps the best piece of the bunch, Cameron Diaz plays Carol, a blind girl who is a curious mix of sexual confidence and personal weakness, reliant on her sister Kathy (Amy Brenneman, “Heat”), a police detective, for physical and emotional support. While Carol is constantly scoring dates — “guys love to do the blind girl,” she jokes — Kathy seems too committed to Carol to have her own personal life.

“Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her” is an excellent title for a film, because, in a sense, that’s what movies are all about: using your powers of observation to fill in the blanks. Garcia urges us to sense out what these women are about, rather than spell it out for us. The idea of playing intelligent, mature, real women obviously appealed to the actresses involved: Diaz has never done anything as nuanced and captivating as this, while Flockhart for once gets to emote without a torrent of Ally-speak, and guess what? She’s great.

This one is definitely a hard sell, a chick-flick for women old enough to no longer view “Charlie’s Angels” as any sort of role models, hardly a dominant demographic in cinemas these days. (Of course, this begs the chicken-and-egg question of whether the dominant teen-boy/comic-book model of mainstream filmmaking might be behind this middle-aged exodus from the cinemas.) “Things You Can Tell” never even opened in U.S. cinemas, despite its star-power and an award at Cannes. But for people still able to appreciate the art of acting, of watching a star sink into a role and surface with something true, then this film will not disappoint.

And yet, while the performances here are compelling, somehow the film feels a bit flat. Blame for this must be laid with the director, who just can’t seem to muster up the steam to move an audience. Compare Golino and Flockhart’s deathbed scene to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jason Robards’ similar scene in “Magnolia,” and it’s clear that Garcia’s cool tone is a bit too much so — when he needs to burn, he only thaws. Also, like many a sensitive director, Garcia can’t do humor. He has a go at it anyway, particularly in the Kathy Bates/dwarf bit, but never manages to elicit more than a weak grin. Garcia aims for some real emotions, though, and he hits more often than not. In this era of three-act formula phoniness and postmodern irony that’s beyond caring about anything, that’s something to be commended. “Things You Can Tell” is a small film, but one with a big heart.

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