Filmmaker Adam Rapp, a prolific playwright, currently has an acclaimed play on the boards in New York called Red Light Winter, and Winter Passing, his first feature, is the kind of intensely felt, intimate drama one imagines unfolding live on an evocative stage where audiences can best appreciate the immediacy of the story and the intimacy of its characters.
But as film, Winter Passing is a cold, hard work inhabited by tortured or incidental characters who embody an interior journey that is neither entertaining nor cathartic. A third-act twist that throws light on much of the pain the protagonists endure still cannot negate the burdensome story that precedes it.
Reese Holden (Zooey Deschanel) is a twenty-something struggling New York actress and barmaid with substance and relationship problems. After literary agent Lori Lansky (Amy Madigan) offers to pay her a handsome sum if she can retrieve the lost love letters that Reese's father Don (Ed Harris), a onetime distinguished novelist, apparently wrote to her late mother, Reese sets off for Michigan to hunt for the alleged stash.
After disposing of her cat in an extreme way that would provoke animal activists, Reese hops the bus for Michigan, bringing along her heavy emotional baggage. Her underplayed monotone utterances, lifted from the Mark Ruffalo School of Acting, underscore the bitterness, anomie and rebellion that permeate her being.
Now at the neglected homestead, Reese makes clear her disdain for her slacker father, who has neglected her and now battles his daughter, in addition to the bottle and writer's block. Don's odd menagerie at his cluster of dilapidating structures includes Corbit (Will Ferrell), a sweet, simple-minded cipher who performs with a Christian rock band, and Shelly (Amelia Warner), a young grad student who may or may not be Don's squeeze or just a boho hanger-on.
As Don grumbles and Reese ambles around her former home looking for the missing letters, the estranged father and daughter stalk each other like seasoned adversaries. The sojourn back to her roots finally results in some significant bonding, as Reese's edges soften and the fusty, cantankerous Don acquires some warmth and paternal feeling.
It's not that Winter Passing isn't nicely played, especially by Deschanel and Harris, who plays a variation of his tortured Pollock character. It's just that their folie a deux feels better suited to the stage than stretched across the big screen. Ferrell, so brilliant, funny and versatile in more conventional roles, never gets his arms around his mentally challenged gentle character, although his Corbit is apparently meant to be autistic.
The well-chosen music soundtrack is a nice addition and the rural New Jersey locations stand in convincingly for Michigan's upper peninsula.