Nobody could argue that Mark Pellington’s “Nostalgia” isn’t clear about the nature of its concern. From its mournful opening credits to its bittersweet final beat, this strange mosaic — a relatively star-studded melodrama that’s passed from one sad character to another like a baton or a bad cold — is a movie with only one thing on its mind. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a story that’s so willing to spend itself on a single idea, but nostalgia is maybe too elusive a subject for such close examination.
It’s a universal sensation — memory’s aftertaste. But it’s also one of the most intensely personal feelings we have (or pleasantly suffer through), so difficult to retrace in fiction because it requires a character to have something and lose something at the same time; to be seduced by a shadow for the sole reason that they can’t ever wrap their arms around it. Nostalgia already feels like it’s being experienced second-hand, which makes dramatizing it that much more difficult.
To that end, it’s tempting to give Pellington credit for trying to make such an unsentimental movie about the power and potential value of sentimentality. Which is not to suggest that “Nostalgia” isn’t awash in raw emotion. On the contrary, it’s so waterlogged with the stuff that every melodramatic plot twist wrings out a few more drops. A typical scene starts with Jon Hamm and Ellen Burstyn meeting up in Vegas to share some Hallmark heartache over an old Ted Williams baseball, and then swells into a hyper-earnest monologue on how the dead are preserved through the things they leave behind.
Nevertheless, this cinematic nocturne keeps all of its feelings at a strange distance, quizzically studying them like a space alien trying to understand the wild logic of the human heart. It’s all too easy to appreciate how the film was born out of Pellington’s own pain over the loss of his wife; it’s the work of someone who’s actively trying to make sense of themselves. Even when “Nostalgia” is at its most labored and lifeless, that urgent curiosity shines through.
Written by Alex Ross Perry (who’s maybe the last human being on Earth whose name you’d expect to see in the closing credits) and filled with all of the sincerity that he’s left out of the savagely caustic screenplays he’s written for himself, “Nostalgia” begins with an insurance agent named Daniel (John Ortiz) visiting Ronald, a curmudgeonly old hoarder played by Bruce Dern. Daniel’s job is literally to quantify the value of priceless stuff, assigning worth to whatever objects connect people to the past.
“Everything is trash, or will be” someone says, and that’s true, but somewhere in that process is a window of time where those same things can be the most valuable items in the world. It’s oddly soothing to watch Daniel and Ronald debate about how it all adds up, Ortiz playing his character with the disaffected calm of an angel (the kind who might anchor a weekly CBS drama in which he wistfully finds a lost soul or two in every episode). Ronald never returns, but his cameo sets the tone for the rest of the film, which plays out like less of a narrative than it does the most expensive ASMR video ever made.
After Daniel leaves Ronald (and pays a visit to the old man’s granddaughter, played by Amber Tamblyn), he sees a widow named Helen (a quivering Burstyn), whose home just burned to the ground, and whose identity went up in smoke along with the vessels that contained it. And then, just when it seems like Daniel will be our guide through all of these stories of loss, the movie abruptly leaves him behind. Instead, Pellington follows Helen to Las Vegas, where she considers selling her late husband’s most precious baseball to a collectibles dealer named Will (Hamm, in the most layered and effective role he’s had since “Mad Men”).
An appraiser of a different sort, Will is sensitive to why certain things mean so much to people, but he can’t quite get there for himself. At one point, Helen asks if “what we hold in our hands can be the same as what we hold in our hearts” (the clunkiest line in a movie where every line feels like a low dose of ipecac), and that’s a question Will has to deal with on a daily basis.
“Nostalgia” becomes a very different film once it follows Will on a trip to see his sister (Catherine Keener) and sell their parents’ house. The story loses its sermon-like cadence, growing a bit more natural as Will and his sister bicker at each other like siblings do (it’s no surprise that Perry’s characters spark to life when they’re being shitty to each other). But this thawing is ultimately revealed to be more of a feint than anything else, as Pellington takes a hard right turn towards melodrama in the final act, boldly attempting to add some red meat to his anguished meditation on impermanence. Of course, the stakes eventually need to get that high; there needs to be a body count to justify the film’s funeral mood, to take something away from us so that we can share in these characters’ sense of loss.
The movie’s ambivalence towards nostalgia is the most affecting thing about it. Are our memories a cross to bear, or are we lost without them? And even if the answer is obviously both and neither, how do we navigate between those two extremes without getting hopelessly turned around? It’s beguiling that a film with an almost religious aversion to subtext could be so unsure of its own subject, but Pellington knows from experience that it’s hard to put a finger on impermanence.
However moribund “Nostalgia” might be, this singular curio is inert in a way that inspires reflection. Pellington’s direction is at its most engaging and perceptive when it pauses to reflect on absence, the camera pondering an empty pool or staring at the exhaust from an airplane as it fades into the clouds. The more you see, the more you miss; ’twas ever thus. The poor director doesn’t know what to do about that, but then again, who does?
“Nostalgia” is now playing theatrically in New York and Los Angeles.