There’s a melancholic and very real-life current to the idea of Liam Neeson and his son Micheál Richardson starring as an estranged father and son grappling with the long-ago death of their wife and mother in actor-turned-writer/director James D’Arcy’s earnest melodrama “Made in Italy.” Richardson is the son of Neeson’s late wife Natasha Richardson, who died terribly and too soon after a skiing accident in 2009. “Made in Italy” recasts this off-screen tragedy as a sort of backdrop to frame a tearjerker about the mending of multigenerational wounds.
Unfortunately, the movie is a treacly slog with a screenplay that fails the storied talent of its elder lead, and the promising gifts of his younger counterpart. Even the shimmering Italian countryside can’t rescue “Made in Italy” from banality, and a pat premise that leaves no room for irreverence or the unexpected.
Jack (Richardson) is a floundering mid-20something, the recently divorced manager of an art gallery. It all seems like the makings of a cushy dream gig for a cash-strapped quarter-lifer, until his ex-wife brusquely informs him that her family, who owns the gallery, is pulling the plug on the space. With no money or even a bankable prospect, Jack is given a month to come up with the funds to stake ownership. So, as any millennial up against a wall is wont to do, he hatches the novel plan of reaching out to his distant father Robert (Neeson), evidently a fabled grouch if Jack’s ex’s grumblings are to be believed, to sell the Tuscan villa they’ve left abandoned for two decades since the death of their matriarch.
Apparently raring to throw blood under the bridge, father and son hit the road to Tuscany. The Italian countryside is never not beautiful onscreen, a bounty of eye-popping visual riches and an endless pageantry of melt-in-the-mouth food, but this world somehow manages to feel flat and one-dimensional here. It’s as if cinematographer Mike Eley is bored by the region’s bucolic wonders. Lens flares and snoozy wide shots do not a postcard picture make.
Then again, the house, once Jack and Robert finally get there, is a tomb of dilapidation, in desperate need of rehab and infested with feral animals (the reveal of a raccoon trapped in a cupboard is borderline jump-scare-level stuff for the critter squeamish). The centerpiece of this ghastly home-away-from-home is a macabre, crimson mural painted by Robert, once an accomplished artist, back in the day. The grim display is instantly reviled by an uptight real-estate appraiser (an amusing and vinegary Lindsay Duncan) who sees no hope in the place. But Jack is determined to flip the house, and so as dictated by the turgid flow of a trite screenplay, it therefore must become a metaphor for the decayed relationship with his father that could use much more than a fresh coat of paint.
Robert, a profligate lothario and indifferent parent incapable of coping, suddenly appears to channel a soul upon arrival at the villa, and the rumination and regret its peeling walls and crumbling bones seem to stir. Thus, he and Jack get to work on bringing the place back to some version of life, affording the movie plenty of throw-down clashes that may or may not have brought Neeson and Richardson an actual off-script catharsis of their own. The most curious appeal of this flavorless movie is the potentially therapeutic environment provided to the cast, as Neeson and Richardson verbally duke it out over hatchets poorly buried and resentments hardly dealt with.
Richardson has a countenance as stony as but a disposition far cheerier than his father, who has made a personal brand out of having seen a thing or two in such films as the “Taken” franchise and grizzly, muscular thrillers like “The Grey” and “Cold Pursuit.” Richardson also starred in “Cold Pursuit,” as well as “Vox Lux” and the “Anchorman” sequel, and with “Made in Italy,” he proves he’s potentially a star waiting to happen, if only a better screenplay could help him get there.
Jack is a void of a person, but Richardson does his best to color in the gaps in a character with no discernible particulars outside of damage from a shitty divorce, the fact that he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral, and a fondness for a perky local waitress with her own troubles (a charming Valeria Bilello). But these are all vaguely sketched traumas pasted onto a blank slate. Neeson, always reliable, is a soothing presence as a sullen paterfamilias, his gravelly voice making the case for a possible second career in ASMR content.
It’s especially painful, at this moment, that an attempted evocation of gorgeous Tuscany and its transformative power to redeem a weary soul are wasted on a melodrama as dreary and lacking in insight or depth as this one, in spite of a couple of engaging performances. Even if it could, “Made in Italy” won’t compel you to hop on an international flight. If anything, it’ll remind you to sit this one out, and wait for better times.
“Made in Italy” opens in select theaters and on digital and VOD on Friday, August 7.