Film Review: The Hollars

Familiar and predictable family drama with several fine performances that regrettably cannot save the dreary material.
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When this reviewer becomes aware of her butt in the seat and starts thinking about what she’ll eat for dinner, it’s not a good sign, especially if the syndrome occurs early on in a film (and with The Hollars, it’s very early on).

It’s a family dramedy about going home again (Thanks, Thomas Wolfe). You think you can’t but you can, and when you do you will grow (yep, that one again). Oh, did I mention it’s a dysfunctional family and partakes of the soap opera with a relentless musical soundtrack that tells you how to feel every step of the way?  

John Hollar (John Krasinski, who also dons the director’s hat) is a struggling graphic novelist based in New York who returns to his Midwestern home when his mother Sally (Margo Martindale) is diagnosed with a massive brain tumor. His father Don (Richard Jenkins) can’t stop sobbing. Besides his ailing wife, his plumbing business is on the verge of bankruptcy and he’s had to fire his entire staff, including his older son Ron (Sharlto Copley), a miserably distraught man who has separated from his wife, misses his children, and regrets everything. He especially resents John, who has jumped ship.

John avoids his family because he’s afraid he’ll become the little boy he once was.  Meanwhile, John’s ex Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is unhappily married to his nemesis Jason (Charlie Day), who now coincidentally serves as Sally’s nurse. Old sores fester. Conflicts erupt. Into the frenetic mix John’s wealthy pregnant girlfriend Becca (Anna Kendrick) arrives on the scene from New York in a cab. She’s taxied halfway across the continent. It’s an alleged comic touch.

The major culprit here is the flawed Jim Crouse script that wants to present a charming and quirky family (it’s not) and tell a story that’s specific and universal (it’s neither) in a tone that marries comedy and heart-tugging sentiment (sorry, nope).

The lack of credibility throughout is numbing. There’s the taxi. There’s also Gwen lurching into John’s arms and kissing him passionately after who knows how many years, while her husband Jason is in the next room. And there’s my favorite. It’s the night before Sally’s life-threatening brain surgery. An admittedly bland, tasteless meal has been ordered for her by her doctors. Hey, there are serious medical reasons for a limited pre-op diet. But in a hijinks/rules-are-made-to-be-broken vein, John spirits a joyously liberated head-shaven, hospital-gown-clad Mom out of the clinic in her wheelchair to a fast-food dive for a heavy, cholesterol-laden gorge-fest, with the subtext that if this is your last dinner, gosh darn, you’re going to enjoy it! Never mind the sentimental claptrap. It’s not funny. Also, it’s not believable, especially when the physicians proceed with the surgery anyway.  

Emotions that turn on a dime are big in this one. The creative team seems to believe that authenticity requires a constant swirl of feeling. You cry, you laugh, you cry some more. Though there’s no evidence to suggest that this condition is widespread in the real world, it’s frequently employed here to ill effect.

Don is awash in guilt yet sees the hilarity in his diagnosing obesity as the root cause of Sally’s symptoms, urging her to meet with a Jenny Craig consultant after she’s complained over a period of years about paralysis, blindness in one eye and mini-seizures. He cries, he laughs, he cries some more. Mostly he heaves and wails, playing it for laughs, before dissolving into laughter himself.

Usually Jenkins is terrific, but this time around he’s been badly misdirected by Krasinski. It’s only Krasinski’s second time at bat, though curiously enough his first feature, an adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, demonstrated greater authority. In The Hollars, the acting often suffers from slapstick merged with melodramatic excess.

Still, there are some good performances including Krasinski’s. He plays the beleaguered, likeable family peacemaker effortlessly. Randall Park is the highly competent surgeon in charge. Kendrick is the voice of reason. But it’s Martindale’s spin as the earthbound matriarch that’s outstanding. She is terrified of her own mortality and nonetheless defines herself as family protector, preparing and at the same time insulating the ones she loves.

But even she cannot save this dreary story. Predictability is high on the list of dramaturgical hiccups. It’s obvious immediately that Sally is going to die (it’s not a spoiler to say so). It’s also clear that the film will be making some sweeping statement about life’s cyclical nature, especially when a pregnant Becca appears, belly swollen, ready to pop.

But when Becca goes into labor at Sally’s funeral (talk about pointed), followed by everyone charging away from the gravesite mid-service with the casket not yet in the ground, it’s unintentional gallows humor almost worthy of Mel Brooks. Just ratchet it up a notch or two.

In the interest of full disclosure, there were no giggles at a recent screening. Indeed, sniffles could be heard at the end. The theme resonated. People die. People are born. Life goes on. Yadda, yadda.

This reporter, however, suffered from dry eye, with her thoughts focused on meal planning.

Click here for cast and crew information.