A brain tumor? In this economy!?
Yet another movie about an affectless white guy in crisis who’s summoned to his childhood home by news of an ailing parent, John Krasinski’s “The Hollars” appears to be the kind of toothless and emotionally counterfeit cancer dramedy that gives America’s independent cinema a bad name. And, at the end of the day, that’s pretty much exactly what it is. But, clawing at the underside of this unashamedly trite saga of kooky characters coming together in their mutual time of need, another story is desperately trying to get out — a story about the market forces of unconditional love, and the kind of commitment issues that are born from (uniquely male) fears of inadequacy. That story, sadly, is smothered to death beneath an epic mountain of the usual chintzy crap.
In fairness, “The Hollars” provides ample warning that it’s an egregiously bad example of its kind. For one thing, our emotionally numb protagonist, John Hollar (Krasinski), is a struggling graphic novelist (as was the case with the hero in screenwriter Jim Strouse’s previous film, “People Places Things”). For another, his divorced older brother is played by “Chappie” star Sharlto Copley, who inhabits the uncharacteristically normal role of a middle-class American plumber about as comfortably as a random middle-class American plumber might handle a gig playing an android police officer in a dystopian South Africa. Finally, as the coup de grâce of the film’s grim prologue, John’s father (Richard Jenkins) finds his wife (esteemed character actress Margo Martindale) lying on the floor of their bathroom, whereupon he refers to her as “chief,” a cutesy nickname that promises to substitute for any meaningful insight into their marriage.
Sally Hollar, we soon learn, has a brain tumor the size of a softball lodged in her skull, and John — who has long since abandoned his rural family for the bright lights of New York City — flies back home to wherever, USA just in time to enjoy the least convincing diagnosis scene in film history (the doctor walks in, rolls his eyes, and refers to the life-threatening glioblastoma as “a big one.”) And just like that, John goes full “Garden State.”
Drawn back into the hokey rhythms of life in the heartland, our lanky and excruciatingly “likable” hero begins to reconsider the future he’s forged with his pregnant girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) as he tends to his mother, watches his brother suffer through some custody woes, and flirts with the idea of rekindling a romance with his high school sweetheart (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, imbuing the film with a short but sorely needed spark of energy). You can pretty much guess how things unfold from there: Old resentments are erased in a breeze of montages, wacky characters say some adorably racist things — just like they do in your family! — and every potential moment of emotional ambiguity is paved over with a folksy Josh Ritter song.
Woefully inauthentic, milquetoast as a mild breeze and far too tidy for any of its sweeping resolutions to have even the faintest hint of staying power, “The Hollars” takes 88 minutes to inspire the same warm and fuzzy feeling that a Hallmark card can deliver in a heartbeat. More often than not, the film’s single-minded desire to spark a very particular reaction comes at the expense of its basic honesty — by the time the story sputters into its singularly absurd climax, its characters are hardly recognizable as human (they feel more like pod people who studied our species by marathoning the last 10 years of Sundance movies).
That Strouse’s script flirts with palpably genuine pathos only makes it more galling whenever Krasinski sells out his characters for their cheapest sentiments. Krasinski, who previously directed the 2006 David Foster Wallace adaptation “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men,” has a clear appreciation for his cast, and he selflessly makes sure that every one of his co-stars gets a moment to show off their stuff. The upside of his hyper-functional direction is that it gives his actors the room they need to search for something in a big mess of nothing — it’s astounding to see what Jenkins and Martindale in particular are able to wring from some of this writing, these stalwart performers tapping into something raw beneath the candied veneer of the scenes at hand.
And yet, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Krasinski is chipping away at what few things might have held the Hollars together. The patriarch of the family is struggling with the idea of being left on his own, his eldest son is regretting the decision to bail on his wife, and his youngest son is afraid that he may not have what it takes to have a family of his own — three men from two generations who are so afraid of failing the women in their lives that their fears of inadequacy metastasize into self-fulfilling prophecies. But “The Hollars” doesn’t have time for any of that. An easy film about hard truths, this is the fool’s gold of feel-good indies, a tone-deaf misfire that fails to listen to itself or heed its own advice. “Men need to be pushed,” Sally tells John with the gravitas of a last goodbye, but — when the movie ends with him literally pushing someone else a few scenes later — it’s as if Krasinski himself doesn’t even believe in this stuff.
“The Hollars” opens in theaters on Friday, August 26.