Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate releases the film in theaters on Friday, September 30.
“I never drank alone before rehab,” cracks Hildy Good (Sigourney Weaver), a divorced, 60-year-old real estate agent whose façade of grace and stability is crumbling even faster than that of the quaint Massachusetts harbor town where her family has lived since the days of the Salem witch trials; what’s happening to Wendover isn’t what you’d call “gentrification,” but the influx of chain businesses and white-collar types buying up all the colonial houses has made the place a shell of what it used to be. Hildy is on the verge of getting priced out, herself, and she’s not taking it well.
By the time we meet her, she’s already talking to herself — or to us through the fourth wall — with the performative casualness of someone who’s about to have the rug pulled out from under them. It’s a device that helps Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodorsky’s “The Good House” capture the deceptively cock-eyed tone of the Ann Leary novel on which it’s based, but also one that epitomizes how this weak-kneed adaptation sacrifices the rich interiority of its source material for the sake of something much broader; something that people might buy, even if they can only almost afford to invest themselves into a script this scattershot (co-written by the directors and Thomas Bezhucha). Like its heroine and namesake, “The Good House” is a drama that strives to sell itself as a sly and vaguely supernatural comedy for adults. And like Hildy, the film waits far too long to relinquish that happy-go-lucky idea of itself.
Cringe-inducing as the Ferris Bueller-style narration can be, Weaver sells it with the two-faced panache of a realtor who knows the market better than her clients ever will, and spends most of her time — if not most of her life — waiting for them to realize that she’s right about how much their little slice of heaven should cost. This is Hildy’s corner of the world, and her roots to Wendover are so much older than any of the houses in town that they’re probably gnarled together in sailing knots under the soil. As a result, she naturally carries herself with a certain high-nosed imperiousness; the kind that Weaver has perfected during her post-Ripley years in films like “A Map of the World,” “Heartbreakers,” and “The Ice Storm” (with Ang Lee’s masterpiece of suburban ennui casting an especially long shadow over “The Good House”).
But Hildy isn’t only Wendover’s most fabled real estate agent, she’s also one of its most imperiled homeowners. “Buying a house that’s out of reach is a recipe for misery,” she confesses to us and no one else. “I bought a house I could almost afford, and if everything had gone to plan I should be fine. That’s not what happened.” What happened, we learn during a series of plucky flashbacks that seem to keep punting the film’s actual story further down the field, is that Hildy’s husband of 22 years (David Rashce) left her for a man and forced her to pay a fortune in alimony for the pleasure.
Hildy looked for solace in her job, but sales began to dry up as she fulfilled the Good family prophecy of becoming a full-blown drunk. She looked for solace in her underwritten daughters, but they turned into total narcs once she started drinking and driving. “It’s too bad the girls never met my mother,” Hildy snipes, “because then they’d know what a real alcoholic looks like” (the brief mention of her absent mother is one of the things this movie eventually revisits later as if it were a pressing mystery or a skull key for something that was already unlocked for us).
Now, Hildy cruises around town in a Range Rover she can’t afford and flirts with the sweet-natured waste magnate Frank (“The Ice Storm” co-star Kevin Kline). Not only is he rich, but he’s a living symbol of the past that Hildy would love to reclaim as her future. Her ancestors survived in this town for 300 years, even when people were trying to burn them alive, and so it’s easy to imagine the historical failure she feels at not being able to afford her own house. The weight on her shoulders only grows heavier — or at least stranger — when it’s implied that Hildy is something of a sorceress herself. Perhaps there is no Hildy, only Zuul? No alcoholism, only an ancient curse? Whatever, cue up “Season of the Witch” on the soundtrack.
All of this business is set at a breezy tempo and scored to the sounds of Theodore Shapiro’s upbeat, Thomas Newman-esque score, as “The Good House” is happily seduced by Hildy’s fun-loving finish. Even after she talks us through her intervention we still feel like she’s got things under control. It’s that kind of movie: blunt yet playful, dusted with New England charm, and just heightened enough that Hildy’s neighbors are played by the likes of Rob Delaney and Morena Baccarin (the latter in the role of Rebecca, a beautiful newcomer who just can’t wait to cause drama). It all seems like the perfect recipe for a wine-loving grandma to get her mojo back.
But “The Good House” isn’t a wicked sweet romp so much as a crucible of self-sabotage, and while Weaver has no hesitation playing someone who’s desperately trying to balance herself between those two modes, Forbes and Wolodarsky are always tacking hard to one side or the other. The film clings to Hildy’s familial sense of self even as her life is falling apart, and while there’s some fun to be had with the rekindled chemistry between Weaver and Kline (whose low-key Boston accent is typical of a delightfully lived-in performance), “The Good House” is so aligned with its delusional heroine that her façade starts to feel as real as the anxieties its scrambling to cover.
Since Hildy is Wendover and vice-versa, which means that we’re also deprived a clearer picture of how the town is losing its own sense of self — a few soggy lines about overpriced coffee don’t cut it — or what the impact might be on the other people who live there. The background mishegoss with Delaney’s character is particularly threadbare, leaving us blindsided by a wild third act (in which two people go missing at once, and Hildy may have killed them both!) that only lines up with the other parts of the movie because it doesn’t. “We’re all pretty much the same,” Hildy admits, and perhaps it’s true that almost everyone in Wendover shares her urgent need for renovation. But “The Good House” spends so much time trying to flip away from its characters’ problems that it becomes hard to notice or care about whatever cracks might be growing in the foundations underneath.
“The Good House” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.