It’s never explicitly stated that Hunter Miles is a member of the 27 Club, but that hasn’t stopped the folk musician (“folk” in terms of both his hero status and his particular brand of strummy rock) from getting grouped with other musicians who left this world too soon. The character at the heart of Sean Mewshaw’s “Tumbledown” is already dead and buried by the time the film opens – in fact, we visit his grave quite frequently, much like his many fans – but his specter looms over the entire feature, as does his cut-short legacy. A moody (maybe? or is that simply how a rocker of his ilk is perceived by the public?) singer/songwriter in the vein of Bon Iver and Elliott Smith, Hunter crafted exactly one solo album (one “perfect” album, as one character observes) before dying in an apparently freak hiking accident. He also left behind exactly one widow (Rebecca Hall) who, quite understandably, hasn’t quite gotten over losing her husband.
Hannah’s grief is already years old by the time we first meet her, but she remains steeped in it by trade: she’s trying to write Hunter’s biography. The process is trying, terrible, and not exactly fruitful, but Hannah is determined to get it done, both out of love and maybe a little bit of obligation. There’s one other problem, though, a big, bearded one, because someone else wants to write about Hunter, too, and he just might be better suited to the task.
As scholar/writer/professor Andrew McCabe, Jason Sudeikis subtly mutes his charm – he’s still occasionally smooth and genuinely engaging, but it’s all turned down a touch. What works best about Sudeikis’s work in “Tumbledown” is his easy spirit, his ability to calm a continually riled up Hannah, and to sell it with a smile. Hannah is initially wary of Andrew – fine, she’s totally terrified of him and massively rude at just about every turn – but despite those early misgivings, Andrew isn’t a creep, and when he tells Hannah, “I want to make your husband immortal,” you cannot help but believe him.
Sudeikis’ ascension to romantic leading man is just starting to ratchet up, thanks to turns in smaller features like both “Tumbledown” and the raunchy Sundance charmer “Sleeping With Other People,” but it’s pulling some solid, sensitive work out of the typically comedic actor, the kind of stuff that works necessary magic on big screen romances. Hall’s work here is less transcendent, but she shades Hannah and her copious emotions with skill, and even during Hannah’s worst moments – and, in between her lying, stealing, and occasionally dirty mouth, she’s got plenty – she emerges as a sympathetic and complex woman who refuses to conform to traditional expectations of either grief or womanhood.
Eventually, the pair decides to pen Hunter’s biography together, an endeavor that’s destined to dig up a whole mess of feelings and secrets, both old and new. The film’s script, penned by Mewshaw and his own wife Desiree Van Til, contains more than a few red herrings, but the film is at its best when it aims for straightforward charm, and especially when Mewshaw allows Sudeikis and Hall to fumble and bumble around their feelings in equal measure. Although “Tumbledown” inevitably turns into a romance, that part of the pair’s relationship is the least earned and the least compelling portion of the film. The pair is not without chemistry, however, and while the romance doesn’t quite sing, it’s not all flat notes either.
“Tumbledown” isn’t free of many of the traps and tropes that pervade romantic comedies, but it frequently takes the time to walk through and explore them with an even, sensitive touch. (Only “frequently,” however, as the film does include one of the genre’s worst elements: underwritten supporting characters. Joe Manganiello adopts a baffling Maine accent in order to woo Hannah, while Diana Agron is confined to the “ditzy, terribly mannered” girlfriend role. Both actors deserve much better, but at least Manganiello appears to have enjoyed his role.)
Lensed by Seamus Tierney, the film makes wonderful use of the stunning Maine scenery, and the influence of nature is felt in every frame. Complete with music by Damien Jurado – who “plays” Hunter in music only, pictures that pop up in the film are of another actor – “Tumbledown” strikes a delicate, moving tone that hits more high notes than lows. [B]