WHAT THEY HAD – movie review

WHAT THEY HAD

Bleecker Street
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Elizabeth Chomko
Screenwriter:  Elizabeth Chomko
Cast:  Hilary Swank, Blythe Danner, Robert Forster, Taissa Farmiga, Josh Lucas, Marilyn Dodds Frank, William Smillie
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 10/10/18
Opens: October 19, 2018
What They Had Movie Poster
There’s a reason that 65% of registered voters in the U.S. will not go to the polls for this all-important mid-term election, or at least this is so if we go by history.  We’re too busy with family squabbles, maybe earning a paycheck which adjusted for inflation has not risen in decades, to care all that much about Iran, North Korea, and our present dysfunctional White House.  Elizabeth Chomko may be on to something in reflecting the lives of three generations in “What They Had” (whatever that means).  The director, who has a longer resume as an actress than a director (this is her freshman project) does show possibilities for further work in the director’s chair, but “What They Had,” a look at a dysfunctional family brought under one roof to argue what should be done with the ailing family matriarch, is a soap opera.  It’s a classy one, but still a soap.  It does have superb performances from an array of top actors going for it, but that’s enough to shake off potential audience ennui given its tiresome script.  It might also get young people in the audience—the few that would attend a movie with a concentration of older, more mature performers—to rethink whether they even want a family.

Though at first we might expect the story to focus on Ruth (Blythe Danner), taking a breath from her commercial for Prolia, which she says can strengthen bones and relieve arthritis. The Alzheimer focus becomes secondary to a free-for-all of family squabbles, none of which is either original or compelling.

Set in a large Chicago-area brownstone occupied by Burt (Robert Forster) and Ruth, “What They Had” brings in Bridget Ertz (Hilary Swank) one woman from flies from California ready to break into tears (as she eventually does) because of her stale marriage to Eddy (Josh Lucas).  She kvetches that she was pushed into wedlock by her dad who figured he was more than good enough for her.  For his part Nicky (Michael Shannon), who bought a bar and tends it, is not meeting his potential according to father Burt.  Young Emma Ertz (Taissa Farmiga) is super unhappy in her freshman year of college, her mother Bridget clueless about how her daughter feels. Mom is called upon, in effect, to allow her to drop out.

The principal conflict pits Nicky against his dad, Burt. Nicky wants to send her mentally ailing mom to a facility that could take care of her but Burt, a former Marine now suffering a heart condition, insists that she can do best by staying just where she is.  Never mind that they had to send out a posse to rescue her after she walked in the snow and took a commuter train out of town.

You can do better by renting “Away From Her,” Sarah Polley’s trenchant, yet humorous look at a woman hospitalized for Alzheimer’s, who transfers her affections from husband to a fellow resident at the center.  “What They Had” has a terrific ensemble of actors but they can’t overcome the weakness of the soapy script.

100 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – C+

THE LEISURE SEEKER – movie review

  • THE LEISURE SEEKER

    Sony Pictures Classics
    Director:  Paolo Virzi
    Screenwriter:  Stephen Amidon, Francesca Archibugi, Francesto Piccolo, Paolo Virzi based on Michael Zadoorian’s book
    Cast:  Helen Mirren, Donald Sutherland, Christian McKay, Janel Moloney, Dana Ivey, Dick Gregory
    Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 11/24/17
    Opens: January 18, 2018
    The Leisure Seeker
    Maurice Chevalier once said “Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.”  I have experience with the former but not the latter, so I can’t say he’s right.  But as the self-help books on happiness say, people report more delight in their seventies than they felt in their twenties.  You can’t go too wrong for opting for youth.  So should the two principals in “The Leisure Seeker,” Paolo Virzi’s first English language feature, a movie that would not have been so heart-tugging with any other pair of actors.  The action right down to the conclusion may be predictable, but how can anyone miss anything that features Helen Mirren?

    Virzi is fortunate in pairing Mirren with Donald Sutherland, whose chemistry at the supposed age of eighty plus is palpable.  These two, Mirren as Ella Spencer and Sutherland as John Spencer, are runaways.  Paolo Virzi is in his métier, as the director’s “Like Crazy” hones in on two women in a Tuscany facility for emotionally disturbed who run away together.

    Disregarding the regularly telephoned warnings of their two adult children, Will (Christian McKay) and Jane (Janel Moloney, begging them to drive their 1975 Winnebago RV home where they can continue to care for them, the loving couple proceed from their Massachusetts digs to Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West, Florida.  As the road movie continues we note that John, a retired college professor, has dementia, sometimes forgetting his wife’s name but never his love for her.  For her part Ella is hiding her own affliction, an illness for which she has refused treatment but medicates herself with whiskey, pills and a liquid solution to help her sleep.

    We wonder how John is able to drive at all, and in fact he does almost get a ticket for weaving on the scenic and surprisingly empty Route 1 southbound. Aside from their protestations of love, each accuses the other of straying from the marriage, now fifty years old, in a plot device that is a hoary as it is insipid.  They stop at a retirement community facility seeking John’s alleged cheating some forty years ago, as John insists on finding the man for whom she transgressed.  They disturb one Dan Coleman (the late Dick Gregory), now in a wheelchair and ordering them out of his room.

    When they stop at a coffee shop, John insists on quoting from Melville, Hemingway and James Joyce, and gets quite a surprise to find a waitress quite familiar with John’s literary hero.  One might be aghast that John, still remembering the quotes he delivered in lectures to his college classes, now insists on repeating “I want a burger.”We wonder who is in worse shape and who will die first: John with his dementia or Ella with her serious illness. Feel free to take bets because the resolution is not far from coming.

    Surprisingly this is arthouse fare given its distribution by Sony Pictures Classics, yet it comes off as both a sitcom that fails to elicit audience laughs, and a drama that mimics so many other films.  The pleasure of watching two first-class performers in action does, however, succeed in giving this movie your attention, though the surprise element is difficult to find, making the movie too good to be considered a misstep yet not good enough to transcend its form.

    Rated R.  112 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

    Story – D
    Acting – A-
    Technical – B
    Overall – C+