NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival. The Hollars opens August 26th.
It's never easy to come home again, especially when confronted by past versions of who you used to be. Inevitably what comes with it is a taking stock of what one's life has amounted to, and what it may still yet amount to. These aren't exactly new ideas for the reliable "dysfunctional homecoming comedy", which John Krasinski has decided to make with his second directorial effort, The Hollars. Past loves, family squabbles, and other familiar elements are still made enjoyable by a winning ensemble led by Krasinski himself.
Think This Is Where I Leave You and you've got the basic idea what to expect. From the moment we see John Hollar (Krasinski, without his 13 Hours scruff), looking miserable in his office cubicle, we know this is a guy unhappy with his life. An aspiring graphic novelist, John is also about to be a father with his sorta girlfriend, Becca (Anna Kendrick), although they don't seem close to getting married. John is stuck and doesn't know how to move forward with his life. When he gets a call from his estranged family that his mother Sally (Margo Martindale) needs surgery to remove a brain tumor, it's a chance to reconnect that maybe John isn't so happy about.
Why John has largely stayed out of his Midwestern family's lives isn't explicitly spelled out, but that they're all a little unhinged may be one reason. His brother Ron (Sharlto Copley) is the craziest of all, and stalks his ex-wife (Tonia Stewart) who has moved on with a youth pastor (Josh Groban), taking their two girls with her. Richard Jenkins is the family patriarch, Don, known for crying at the drop of a hat, which turns out to be a problem given the current circumstances. Not only is his wife going under the knife but the family business is on the rocks.
Failing as a father is a bonding point for father and son, with one dealing with it in the present and the other worried about the future. John also has to contend with an old flame (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) whose husband (Charlie Day) happens to be Sally's nurse, making for some awkward encounters. While the men are all basket cases in one way or another, the women are their rocks propping them up with just the right words at just the right time.
While the film stays comfortably within the expected formula set forth by screenwriter Jim Strouse, some of the performances go beyond expectation. Martindale has been the bedrock supporting star of so many tremendous films that it's good to see her get more of a chance to shine. It takes a little getting used to seeing Copley in a role that doesn't require him to kill somebody, but he shows he's more than capable of playing "normal" (relatively speaking), and even captures the angst of a father worried of losing his children. The cast overall is terrific and is the film's greatest strength, with Krasinski, Kendrick, and Jenkins providing likable turns.
Just don't expect much in the way of originality, and even a few sitcom tropes find their way into the mix. A late-film birth happens at an inopportune time, and a marriage is hastily tacked on to end on a high note that doesn't feel completely earned, perhaps because of Josh Ritter's somber, folksy score blanketing every scene. But Krasinski is clearly going for sincere and heartwarming not aspiration, and on those modest goals The Hollars can be considered a modest success.
Rating: 3 out of 5