Perhaps stung by the middling-to-poor reviews for her last film “Texas Killing Fields,” director Ami Canaan Mann (daughter of Michael) returns to screens under cover of absolute directorial anonymity with “Jackie & Ryan,” a movie hamstrung in its attempts to be a “Crazy Heart” or even “Country Strong”-ish vehicle for Katherine Heigl by being more bland than a mashed potato dinner. It’s a strangely old-fashioned film, yielding a big enough crop of corn to revive the entire Midwestern economy, putting forth a dubiously romanticized view of the philosophical beauty of the train-hopping lifestyle. And while Ben Barnes does the film’s decent music great justice with his surprisingly lovely singing voice, that’s really the only authentic feeling thing therein. “Jackie & Ryan” is supposedly all about learning how to git where ya gotta go, but none of the characters start or end in particularly interesting places, and the journey is one through which we’d rather have slept in back seat.
Ryan (Barnes) is a restless, talented young guitarist/singer who carries all he owns in a single backpack, does odd jobs and construction work and busks for living. Arriving in town to hook up with an old friend (an underused Clea duVall plays said friend’s wife), Ryan exchanges a charged look with a pretty woman, Jackie (Heigl), who compliments him on his playing. So it’s great news for him when the next time he sees her, she gets hit by a car while texting and he can rescue her. Even better, his pack gets stolen, and it starts to snow, so he’s just gotta stay over! Jackie’s mother (Sheryl Lee, given one scene in which she’s allowed to talk and thereafter appearing as mute as Laura Palmer’s corpse) is frosty toward the newcomer, but Jackie’s precocious daughter instantly takes to him, and he keeps finding pretexts to stay.
Jackie herself has an extraordinarily fascinating/deeply banal back story, depending on your tolerance for Movie Problems That No One Real Ever Had: she was a successful country singer with a big ol’ record deal but has not made music since moving back to Utah after filing for divorce on the grounds that her husband was some manner of “asshole.” Jackie’s terrible predicament —should she sell the Manhattan condo in order to finance the custody battle for her beloved daughter? — is a bit too rarified to be terribly moved by. And Ryan’s own problem (if only these two troubled souls could somehow heal each other!) which Jackie identifies as his lack of confidence in playing his own material as opposed to covers, is similarly low-intensity. For all its ridin’ the rails wisdom and for all Ryan’s lyrics about police pursuit and alcoholism, this is a film with supreme grit deficits.
Which would be fine if it worked better as a kind of winsome, bittersweet ballad. Jackie and Ryan, despite sharing no visible chemistry, of course find each other (in a sex scene so hilariously tasteful it would receive plaudits from representatives of the Hayes Code), but more importantly y’all, they find themselves, and if you love something you gotta let it go, and other cliches we won’t mention. But the film stumbles badly when it comes time for the inevitable moment, teased early when Jackie looks sadly at her guitar and tells Ryan she doesn’t play any more, when she does get back onstage. At a local music festival, Jackie is brought up in front of a willing crowd, and performs a duet with her daughter. This must be the moment when not only does Jackie reconnect with her love of making music, but where we discover that wow, Katherine Heigl can really sing!
But no. After a cringingly embarrassing intro speech on the line of “I don’t know about you folks, but it really does feel like a hard time in the country right now,” Heigl duets with her character’s daughter on the classic “Down on Penny’s Farm,” rendered in a sound mix so poor that it’s patently obvious the lusty way she’s singing onstage could never actually produce the close-to-mic breathy studio rendition we’re hearing. That’s (thankfully) the only time she sings, but it does beg the question, why have her play a singer at all? She could have been a musician or a music exec or a weather girl with an interest in country music, and the plot, such as it is, would still have worked fine. Heigl may look like a country singer, but she sure as hell doesn’t sound like one.
Even by the looser standards of the Horizons sidebar, this is not a film that belongs at the Venice Film Festival. Whatever insight it may claim, whatever comment on recession-era America Ryan’s wherever-I-lay-my-hat lifestyle may make, is lost amid cliché and corn as high as an elephant’s eye. Low on stakes, light on originality, and limp in execution, so little of consequence happens in “Jackie & Ryan” that we’d lost interest long before the film sputtered to a halt. So much so that in the would-be bittersweet final moments, when Jackie and Ryan exchange a series of sweet phone messages from their respective locations, all we could think was, huh, even after that car accident, Jackie’s never going to learn not to walk and text. [C]