No one knows their neighbors anymore. Tony McNamara’s off-kilter but admirably good-hearted “Ashby” makes such a case. Young Ed Wallis’ (Nat Wolff) neighbor is a former CIA agent with nearly a hundred kills under his fashionably distressed belt. Who would want to live next door to someone like that? Conveniently enough, Ed would. He’s the new kid in town and doesn’t have any friends to speak of, and the combination of a contrived school assignment (basically, “meet an old person, talk to them, write about it”) and the discovery of the bluehair next door inspires Ed to make a pal out of Ashby (Mickey Rourke). Too bad the guy has secrets —government-sanctioned murder the least among them— that just might keep him from letting Ed in.
Just kidding! Ashby takes to Ed well enough, or at least he doesn’t mind having a fresh-faced teen available to tote him to complete some mysterious missions, and the pair is soon amiably zipping around town. The twist of “Ashby” isn’t that Ashby is a former killer — it’s that he’s dying and desperate to right a series of wrongs left over from his perhaps ill-advised career. Ed has no idea about all this and seems to revel in the idea that he’s helping out his colorful and outspoken new pal by simply driving him to various locations for whatever it is that old people do.
This scenario would be enough to fill a feature on its own, but this odd but surprisingly sweet buddy comedy about two mismatched wisecrackers adds in still more material, giving “Ashby” the distinct impression of being two films in one (neither of which should really be called “Ashby”). If one half of “Ashby” chronicles Ed and Ashby healing old CIA wounds with the specter of death looming over the former, the other is a relatively charming teen comedy that sees Ed attempting to fit into his new high school.
Ed and his newly divorced mother June (a sadly underused Sarah Silverman) have recently relocated to Virginia, and both are struggling to fit into awkward new environments. Much to Ed’s chagrin, June’s hot on the dating market, while he’s baffled by his football-crazed high school. When we first meet Ed, he’s touting his affection for Hemingway to an amusingly sardonic English teacher (Jason Davis) while the football team all but drools on their desks nearby. Yet as soon as the obviously clever Ed has worked out that football is the straight shot to school acceptance, he’s practicing in his backyard. And he’s really good? It’s never clear what Ed’s sports background is (if any), or why he latches so firmly on to the idea that he needs to fit in after so clearly enjoying showing off his smarts earlier, and it’s one of many baffling details that are never quite worked out.
Another bizarre addition to the bloated narrative is Ed’s love interest, a disarmingly sweet Emma Roberts as Eloise (like Silverman, she’s underused) who clearly matriculated from the “nerdy girls wear glasses” school of teen comedy. Ed and Eloise bond quickly over their shared belief that “most people are idiots,” and their rocky romance is a sweet if undercooked element of the sprawling affair. Eloise gets her own subplot, centered on her desire to study football players’ brains for any irregularities before, during, and after the season. Her experiment extends as far as having an MRI in her basement, though we never learn the results of her studies.
It’s inevitable that “Ashby” will squish together its two most important plots —Ashby’s mysterious quest and Ed’s attempts to be a football star— but McNamara attempts to keep the movie ticking right along, and for all its half-cocked plotlines, “Ashby” is able to maintain a consistently humorous and light tone. Ed and Ashby’s worldview is more than a bit skewed, but so is the film’s, and it works well enough to keep the film entertaining and bouncy.
Wolff is on the cusp of major teen dream stardom —his next big role will see him toplining “Paper Towns,” based on John Green’s novel of the same name, which is basically teen catnip— and his flinty charm has already improved other features like “Admission” and “Palo Alto.” It’s on full display here, although less impressive is Rourke who since his lauded comeback role in “The Wrestler” has consistently proved himself wholly unable to transcend his roles. That Ashby looks and moves just like Rourke isn’t unexpected, even though it’s still disappointing. Still, generally good spirit and Wolff’s big-time charm shine through, and “Ashby” is mostly pleasing. [C+]