3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang
Family dysfunction is a longtime cinema staple, and for obvious reasons: We feel much better about our own lives, while vicariously experiencing the calamities others inflict upon themselves.
|John (John Krasinski), seeking a way to re-connect with his mother, Sally (Margo|
Martindale), impulsively sneaks a contraband breakfast into her hospital room one
morning: pretzels and ice cream.
But walking the fine line between reasonable character flaws and exaggerated burlesque is a fine art; the personalities in question must remain credible — at least to some degree — if we’re to sympathize, and therefore consent to any lessons the writer may have concealed within the anguish.
Scripter Jim Strouse manages pretty well, with The Hollars. His chaotic family study is both sweetly amusing and, at times, embarrassingly intimate. The latter derives from the fine work, all around, delivered by a top-notch ensemble cast led by the indomitable Margo Martindale.
The film is something of a personal project for John Krasinski, who directs, co-produced and also co-stars. It’s easy to see what drew him to this material, as Strouse includes some perceptive truths — and uncomfortably accurate interpersonal dynamics — amid this serio-comic study of a family in distress.
John Hollar (Krasinski) left his middle-American small town years ago, to seek his fortune in New York City. He lucked into a devoted — if somewhat insecure — girlfriend, Rebecca (Anna Kendrick); they’re expecting a baby, but remain unmarried. This failure to commit apparently derives from John’s dissatisfaction with a drone-like job endured while he attempts to establish a career as a writer/artist of graphic novels: a dream that just ... isn’t ... happening.
He’s summoned back home by the news that his mother, Sally (Martindale), has been hospitalized with a particularly nasty brain tumor. We get a sense that John, although inherently kind and sensitive, has semi-estranged himself from a tempestuous family environment; he returns to find that the flawed dynamic has blossomed into full-blown crisis and chaos.
His father, Don (Richard Jenkins), is inches away from losing the business he spent a lifetime building, his entire staff unwilling to continue until they’re paid several weeks’ back wages. Don also is hit the hardest by this medical crisis, literally crumbling before everybody’s eyes.
Don and elder son Ron (Sharlto Copley) are at each other’s throats, driven apart by differing opinions on how their business should be run. The hot-headed Ron is something of an idiot anyway, given to inappropriate non-sequiturs that reflect the sensitivity of a 9-year-old ... which is pretty much the way he usually behaves. Ron is further distressed by an unhappy divorce from ex-wife Stacey (Ashley Dyke), which has distanced him from the two young daughters he adores.
Ron therefore takes every opportunity to spy on Stacey and the girls ... with binoculars, from within a car parked just across the street from the house he once shared with them. Which naturally troubles Stacey, whose current significant other — Dan (Josh Groban), a local children’s pastor — does his best to defuse the situation. But Dan’s unruffled calm merely infuriates Ron further (and their interactions are pretty funny).
Once John reaches his mother’s hospital bed, additional conflict emerges from her nurse, Jason (Charlie Day), a long-ago high school buddy. Jason is none too pleased, because he’s married to Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a hottie who — back in the day — was John’s steady girlfriend. John may have left her behind, but we soon discover that she never lost her feelings for him.
Which, obviously, is the last thing John needs, at the moment. It’s all so overwhelming that he resumes the cigarette habit — including trying (and failing) to lie about it — that his mother and Rebecca obviously chided him into quitting, at some point in the past.
The first act, which establishes all of these scenarios, is almost too difficult to watch; it’s deeply, invasively personal, and we feel like voyeurs. And although these various crises are enhanced for dramatic — and comedic — impact, none feels entirely outside the realm of possibility. If the clashes, arguments and ill-advised acts sound familiar, it’s because we’ve been there, to some degree.
Strouse has an uncanny ear for family discord. And for the loving forgiveness that inevitably (hopefully) follows.
To be fair, some of the set-ups are a bit too contrived, as with John’s foolish agreement to have dinner with Jason and Gwen, and the haste with which she attempts to re-ignite old flames. The nervous John’s subsequent tell-all phone confession to Rebecca also doesn’t quite ring true, although it serves the purpose of bringing her into the mix. (Via an eight-hour cab ride. She’s rich.)
On the other hand, Strouse sets up numerous moments of tenderness so acute that they hurt: none better than John’s impulsive, loving act, as his mother is prepared for surgery. Also endearing: when John shows up at Sally’s bedside one morning, with a breakfast definitely not according to hospital dietary restrictions.
The Ron/Reverend Dan situation also builds to a satisfying resolve.
What we eventually realize — this is such an epiphany — is that although Sally has been the matriarchal glue holding this family together, her sheltering hand also has prevented everybody from moving forward. They’re stuck in their individual, paralyzed ruts: unable to progress, or think for themselves. I can’t help being impressed by Strouse’s perceptive wisdom.
Martindale — as always — is a force of nature, albeit in a completely credible sense. She laughs and cries with equal sincerity, Sally tut-tutting her husband’s tearful histrionics away, or fixing Ron with a raised-eyebrow stare, upon learning of his latest antic. Her gruff sangfroid is absolutely credible, as is Martindale’s shining moment, when Sally — just before surgery — quite suddenly shatters.
No viewer can survive that scene unmoved.
Jenkins, so often playing characters in complete control, is equally credible as a man at the end of his rope. (Heck, at the end of several ropes.) Don’s very posture suggests fragility, his physical presence debilitated by too much disappointment. He looks like a stiff breeze could blow him away.
Kendrick unerringly nails the right blend of control freak and nervous girlfriend, Rebecca obviously not quite sure of John’s ability to go the distance. She knows that he wants to, but her concerns about interfering circumstances are well placed. Kendrick keeps her vulnerable and sympathetic; we bleed for Rebecca.
Copley’s Ron is irritating: a festering sore whose behavior constantly grates. We want to reach into the screen and smack some sense into the man ... which, of course, is the point. He’s the black-sheep older brother who never got the big picture, and Copley deftly catches that insufferable immaturity.
I’ve never cared for Day, who has based his career on playing obnoxious, nasal-voiced twerps. He’s right on form here, although — in fairness — Krasinski (as director) minimizes Day’s vocal tics, while Strouse grants Jason a final scene with Don, that forgives some earlier sins.
Winstead seems more a prop than an actual character, and Randall Park never looks comfortable in his role as Sally’s surgeon. Groban, on the other hand, is note-perfect as the benevolent, smilingly tolerant Reverend Dan.
Amid all these slightly to hugely damaged individuals, Krasinski’s John is the protagonist whose destiny seems crucial. He’s the (essentially) “normal” character most likely able to get his act together, if circumstances allow. Krasinski has a solid handle on John’s insecurities and frustrations, while also smoothly transitioning — as the story progresses — into becoming the subtle catalyst who will help everybody else.
It’s a broad emotional arc, requiring careful nuance, and Krasinski handles it pretty well. He also deserves credit for having coached similarly delicate work from everybody else.
Strouse’s script isn’t note-perfect, as already established. But he scores far more often than he misses, and patient viewers will be rewarded with a thoroughly satisfying climax that addresses all of the emotional angst. The Hollars is a sweet little movie, well deserving all the attention it can get.