Our returnee is John Hollar (John Krasinski of The Office fame, who also directed), a graphic artist living in Manhattan. He's wavering about marriage, even though his girlfriend, Rebecca (Anna Kendrick), is conspicuously pregnant, and he's dissatisfied with his job at a publishing house (he aspires to be a graphic novelist.) John learns that his mom, Sally (Margo Martindale) has been hospitalized after collapsing at home. Rebecca puts John on a plane to his hometown.
John crosses paths with people from his past, including Jason (Charlie Day), the nurse attending his mom, who's an old high school classmate. Jason is now married to John's high school girlfriend, Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and is intensely jealous of John. Rightly so, because when John comes over for dinner, Gwen throws herself at him, saying of her marriage, “It's not working out.”
The movie was written by James C. Strouse, whose previous outing, PEOPLE PLACES THINGS, this strongly resembles (struggling graphic novelist with relationship problems, issues related to divorce and child custody). There is enough incident for a sprawling intergenerational novel, uncomfortably crammed into a 105-minute movie. Strouse and Krasinski don't seem to trust the heartfelt narrative, so they resort to ridiculous happenings: Ron peeing into a juice pitcher because both home bathrooms are occupied; Ron and his dad having a slap fight; John kidnapping his mom from the hospital on the eve of brain surgery and taking her for burgers and ice cream; Rebecca, in labor, being rushed to the hospital in a hearse. And so on.
But whenever there's a moving moment, the movie undermines it with some amped-up absurdity, as if it's afraid to let us cry. Sally, about to be wheeled into surgery, cries out in fear, and her family soothes her by serenading her with her favorite song. Something generationally appropriate for a mature grandmother? Nope, it's “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls, a song whose complex feminist lyrics I doubt are on many grandmas' and grandpas' lips.
The screenplay makes wan attempts to flesh out the characters, but they remain stubbornly superficial. Sally confides in John that she sometimes regrets marrying Don, but she never reveals why. She reminisces about their early married days, when she used to sit for hours in an empty movie palace, staring at the elaborately painted ceiling. Why the ceiling, for heaven's sake, and not the movies? The anecdote reveals nothing about Sally, her marriage, or her dreams.
We don't expect absolute verisimilitude in fiction, but a story should have people behave plausibly. The medical content of this story is particularly problematic. When someone is diagnosed with a brain tumor, might not the first question be whether it's cancer? The issue never arises.
THE HOLLARS has some excellent qualities, especially its cast, but it should have been so much better. 2 3/4 out of 4 stars.