At some point – perhaps around the mid-nineties when he banged out roles in films as varied as “Pulp Fiction” and “Excess Baggage,” maybe when he voiced his need for more cowbell in 2000, who’s to say, really – Christopher Walken entered an actorly realm of self-parody that few stars are ever able to fully escape. What set Walken apart from the pack was the sense that he was in on the joke, that he was happily playing up his cadence and his dancing purely for our benefit, and that it had zero bearing on his actual (and profound) ability to leave that stuff behind when his work required him to do so. Yet that doesn’t dilute the pure pleasure of watching Walken marry those two ideals – the hammy Walken, the serious Walken – into one irrepressibly charming character in Robert Edwards’ darling “When I Live My Life Over Again.”
The low-key family dramedy centers on a stilted semi-reunion between Walken’s Paul Lombard, a born-too-late singer who spends his evenings correcting his Wikipedia page so as to make it clear that he’s the most romantic crooner of all time (think Frank Sinatra crossed with Johnny Mathis), and his eldest daughter, Jude (Amber Heard), who is understandably annoyed by everyone’s belief that she’s wasted her own talent in the musical realm. Pink-haired and leather-clad Jude is a mess, and not in an endearing way, but in an exhausting way. Soon to be kicked out of her apartment and without a genuine professional prospect in sight, Jude heads out to Paul’s place in The Hamptons to regroup and maybe – just maybe! – figure out the rest of her life.
If that sounds like the set-up for some cheesy and over-the-top feature about family drama and finding your own way, it’s meant to, but Edwards keeps the stakes mostly low, instead opting to explore an intimate story that feels as funny as it does true. Jude has issues with Paul – and, yes, she refuses to call him anything but “Paul,” which makes him nuts – mainly rooted in his legendarily naughty behavior with the ladies. She’s also got problems with her seemingly perfect little sister, Corinne (Kelli Garner, who is fantastic in what could be a one-note role) who, in turn, is quietly dismayed that she never got the musical gene her father and sister share. The Lombard family isn’t very happy or very close, but Edwards refuses to make anyone into a monster or a caricature, and their various dramas remain identifiable and easy to watch.
The film has a lived-in feel that befits its family-centric premise, and the cast (including Hamish Linklater, Oliver Platt, and Ann Magnuson) gels together almost instantaneously. This is a family that really feels like a family. Various scenes of dinner table crosstalk – some of it improvised – are deeply funny and remarkably relatable. The Lombards may have pudgy bank accounts and worldwide fame, but their core issues aren’t so steeped in either thing as to make them scan as anything less than identifiable. Even the film’s major dramatic arc, pinned on Paul’s desire to launch a comeback with a brand new song and a gig opening for The Flaming Lips, doesn’t feel distancing in the slightest.
As Paul attempts to enter a brand new second act in his career – even though he’s still up to his old tricks, Wikipedia page editing, catting around and all – Jude wades through the detritus of her own life, tentatively interested in launching her own second act, whatever that may look like. Edwards doesn’t foist many major challenges or huge changes on Jude, and the effect is comforting and realistic. Audiences may be used to films like “When I Live My Life Over Again” going for big theatrics and life-changing fireworks in service to hefty drama, but Edwards’ film stays mostly even-keeled and lovingly balanced (the film does stall out a bit near the end of its second act, but it regains its footing in time to end on a charming note).
It really is charm that drives the feature, with Walken pleasingly zipping around on screen while the rest of the cast gamely rally around him, particularly Heard and Garner, who would likely still be plenty of fun in even a Walken-less feature. “When I Live My Life Over Again” is a low-key pleasure with big rewards, the kind worth crooning about. [B+]