Richard LaGravenese is one of the most distinctive and literate screenwriters working in Hollywood, with a gift for streamlining disreputable best-sellers (The Bridges Of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer) and rendering his original work (Unstrung Heroes, The Fisher King) off-center enough to resist easy sentimentality. His directorial debut, Living Out Loud, has the arc of a standard female-empowerment story, but LaGravenese lets real-life messiness keep it off a straight track, coming up with an unexpected and touching portrait of platonic friendship. A lean and impulsive Holly Hunter stars as a wealthy New York divorcée living in a cavernous Manhattan high-rise; she finds a kindred spirit in her lonely elevator operator, played by Danny DeVito. Romantically, their interests don't intersect: Hunter, finally emerging from ex-husband Martin Donovan's shadow, wants to re-claim her identity, while DeVito, sad and lovelorn, vies for her affections. If nothing else, Living Out Loud features two devastating exchanges in which their conflicting feelings for each other rise to the surface, as well as one inspired fantasy dance sequence, satisfying Howard Hawks' dictum that all a good movie needs is "three great scenes and no bad scenes." As a nightclub singer, Queen Latifah provides a cool, welcome counterpoint to Hunter's wired performance, adding a wistful soft-jazz ambiance that buoys the characters' desires. LaGravenese is still more assured as a writer than a director; the storytelling gets slack at times, and his ambitious attempts to vocalize Hunter's internal monologues don't really pay off. But the character-driven Living Out Loud offers a response to the auteur indulgences of Terry Gilliam, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, and others who have adapted his scripts, a convincing plea to stay close to the page and give great actors room to work.