A solid cast gets sunk by a weak script

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Opens March 16
2 out of 5

Odds are the name Alex Ross Perry doesn’t mean much to you, but in indie film circles he’s considered the second coming of Steven Soderbergh. Perry specializes in portraying unpleasant people with complex inner lives (Listen Up Philip, the incest dramedy The Color Wheel). He also starred in the absolutely unbearable La Última Película, a movie so pretentious and incomprehensible, it nearly became the fourth film I’ve walked out of.*

It was only a matter of time before the mainstream co-opted the talented Mr. Perry. But something happened on the way to Hollywood: his writing lost the edge that characterized his early work, and now his scripts are gentle and earnest. Too earnest, actually.

Later this year we’ll witness Perry’s Winnie The Pooh live-action adaptation Christopher Robin (I fear for Eeyore). But for now we have Nostalgia, an ensemble drama about things, and the emotional significance we vest in them.

Nostalgia opens with a sympathetic insurance adjuster (John Ortiz) interviewing elderly folk regarding the value of their possessions, existing or lost. Just before you assume he is the lead, the agent is replaced by one of the claimants, a widow (Ellen Burstyn) who has lost everything in a fire, except a piece of memorabilia. The collectable puts her in touch with a trader (Jon Hamm), who — oddly, considering his line of work — doesn’t see the value in old stuff.

Directed by Mark Pellington (The Mothman Prophecies) from a script by Perry, the ideas in Nostalgia are compelling, but too abstract for cinema. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but you need a visual talent at the helm, especially when most of the conflict is about the impossibility of assigning value to intangibles.

Nostalgia relies heavily on dialogue, so much so it could easily be transformed into a play. Nearly every scene involves two people musing about the passing of time and what’s left in its wake. It often goes for an emotional gut-punch, but seldom lands one. The filmmaker’s tendency to state the obvious reaches its apex when the adjuster stands in the middle of the fire debris and states wistfully: “Lives lived”. An audible groan escaped from me. Another gem: “You’re a puzzle, little bro”.

Even though the script doesn’t succeed at rendering its message clearly (unless the moral of the story is as ground-breaking as “we project our emotions onto things”), a lot is asked from the cast. Ortiz, Hamm and Burstyn are up to par, but Catherine Keener takes the cake as the memorabilia trader’s sister, who endures an unspeakable tragedy over the course of the film. Keener is so good, she made me wish this was a better movie to justify her emotional investment.

The presence of Patton Oswalt for a few seconds for no good reason indicates there is a larger version of Nostalgia kicking around. Maybe that one has a raison d’etre.

* Movies I have walked out of (so far): The Double Life of Veronique, The Comedy, A Burning Hot Summer.