From its first moments, when a grown son fights with his mother for morning bathroom time and finally resorts to an unsavory solution involving an orange juice pitcher and steady aim, “The Hollars” announces that it intends to be another “quirky” dysfunctional family dramedy in the tradition of the fine 2005 film “Junebug” and its far less gifted but more eager-to-please siblings, “Garden State” and “Little Miss Sunshine.”
Written by James Strouse and directed by John Krasinski, who also stars, “The Hollars” falls somewhere in between those last two movies, slipping into insufferable cliches and contrivances one minute, evincing delicate familial interplay and genuine emotion the next.
Krasinski plays John Hollar, a graphic artist and expectant young father living in New York, when he’s called back to his unnamed home town by a health emergency involving his parents, Sally and Don (Margo Martindale and Richard Jenkins). This also means re-engaging with his semi-estranged brother, Ron (Sharlto Copley), he of the orange juice pitcher and a perpetually bitter attitude.
The themes of “The Hollars” – a prodigal’s return, a young adult’s coming of age, facing mortality and forgiveness – are eternal, which makes it all the more crucial that they be explored in new, revealing ways on-screen. That’s a hit-and-miss proposition in a film that features more than its share of scenes that feel too familiar (a disgruntled ex-husband stalking his former family; an encounter with a still-interested former girlfriend), as well as sequences that flat-out don’t work, such as an impromptu performance of an Indigo Girls song that might be designed to pluck heartstrings, but feels forced and too-cute by half.
Luckily, pros such as Jenkins and Martindale have things well in hand, even when Strouse’s script demands that the former behave like a gibbering idiot. For her part, Martindale owns a movie that, at its best, presents an authentically touching mother-son relationship that banishes the overbearing-nag stereotype that is all too frequent. Her scenes with Krasinski are warm, funny and utterly natural, and she saves her character from potential martyrdom by infusing her with wised-up, unsentimental directness.
“The Hollars” drives inexorably to a conclusion that feels as manipulatively mawkish as impossibly tidy, typical of a genre that too often tries to have it both ways. It turns out that happy families are all alike, even when they’re a little bit sad.
Cast: John Krasinski, Margo Martindale, Richard Jenkins
Director: John Krasinski
Length: 88 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (brief profanity and thematic material involving illness and death)
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