Film Review: Nostalgia

This curious and dull think-piece of an anthology movie strings together stories on the theme of objects and the memories they trigger without ever finding the right tone.
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When Susan Sontag wrote that photography “converts the whole world into a cemetery,” she could have easily expanded that to include just about any personal possession. Everything we own, from a favorite album from adolescence to a souvenir spoon from that visit to the Grand Canyon, stands ready as a potential repository of some memory of us after we are gone. That prehistoric sense of possessions being imbued with some kind of animist spirit is shot all through Mark Pellington’s dramaturgical flatline of a curiosity-piece movie about nostalgia, stuff and the things (in all sense of the word) that we leave behind.

Nostalgia begins as the misadventures of the preternaturally even-keeled Dan (John Ortiz). An abnormally empathetic insurance agent who seems to have seen it all, Dan acts as point person for the company whenever people make claims about either insuring their valuables or wondering why they haven’t gotten paid yet. The first assignment of his that we see has Dan going to the house of an old man (Bruce Dern) to assess whether everything looks kosher before the appraiser shows up. It’s not the most auspicious of beginnings, with a tiresome debate racketing around subjects such as “Is anything worth anything?” and Ortiz’s serene unflappability banging up against Dern’s usual glint of teeth-grinding irritation.

Suggesting nothing so much as the pilot episode of a new hour-long CBS drama about a mild-mannered insurance agent, Dan goes off to his next assignment. Helen (Ellen Burstyn) is a widow whose house just burned down. She is first seen wandering in the ashes, talking to Dan about the horrible drama of the moment where you have to “decide what you take from a burning building.” Grief-stricken, almost as though she had lost her husband again, Helen lives in a kind of fog where each piece she finds triggers another poignant memory. “These are the remainders of our lives,” she narrates in one of many such arch pronouncements in Alex Ross Perry’s script. “What is the value of anything?” she asks in another all-too-obvious query.

For the second half of Nostalgia, the task of symbolic significance is handed off none too neatly to Will (Jon Hamm), a Las Vegas dealer in pricey memorabilia, who agrees to take a look at the key item in Ellen’s limited stash of fire-surviving objects, an autographed baseball hit by Ted Williams that had been among her husband’s family heirlooms. This leads to more rumination on the nature of things, especially after Will flies home to help his sister (Catherine Keener) clean out their childhood home following their parents’ decision to downsize and move to Florida.

This part of the movie hits with slightly more force, in part because of a surprise tragedy that leaves a father trying to figure out how to find things to display at the funeral when his dead daughter kept everything important on her computer. But Pellington—who has transitioned unfortunately from a helmer of visually striking and oddball thrillers like Arlington Road and The Mothman Prophecies to this brand of unaffecting drama—shoots everything with such unremarkable cool blue detachment that nothing happening onscreen has much of an impact.

Nostalgia doesn’t turn the world into a cemetery. But it doesn’t exactly make it into a lively place, either.

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