The trickiest movies to review are the ones that just miss the mark. Raving about something brilliant or heavily poo-pooing a piece of garbage are easy enough. Finding the words to describe that awkward place between effective and failure? That’s where I’m at with ‘Nostalgia’.
The cast is extraordinary, the ideas are strong, the craft is solid and the intentions are pure for all involved. And yet, something about the movie just never quite clicks. It’s hard to say why, but I guess this is where I try.
One of those human tapestry tales, ‘Nostalgia’ weaves together several different stories with no real protagonist. In this case, everyone is linked by the theme of possessions and the disparity between the nostalgic and monetary value they have. Director Mark Pellington (‘Arlington Road’, ‘The Mothman Prophecies’) starts off by following an insurance appraiser (John Ortiz) who makes a point of maintaining an emotional distance from his work. He first starts by helping a grouchy old hoarder (Bruce Dern) sort through piles of clutter in ways that get the old guy and his daughter (Amber Tamblyn) a little misty. Next up, Pellington shifts focus to a widow played by Ellen Burstyn, who loses everything she owns to a fire, except an autographed baseball card that belonged to her late husband. So, you know, more emotions. Finally, the film follows a Vegas collectables/antique dealer who specializes in separating people from their heirlooms for cash. The job gets a little tricky as he helps his sister (Catherine Keener) clear out their old family home.
The central themes are interesting, exploring how our lives are so often defined by our possessions and the ways in which things that seem extraordinarily valuable to ourselves can mean absolutely nothing to others. By exploring that in a tapestry movie, the audience is invited to join in that fascination, sitting with characters for a while and going through their stuff to determine who they are, then moving on to someone else to do the same. There’s something kind of fascinating about that, in a character study manner.
Pellington doesn’t impose too much of his own style onto the material (wise for a music video director). Instead, he dedicates his visual imagination to creating these worlds of personality-defining properties and collections. He also gives the actors enough space to create rich characters with minimal screen time. Seeing the likes of the great Ellen Burstyn bring so much pain and emotion to so little, Bruce Dern doing his pitch perfect crank routine, or watching Jon Hamm peel back the layers of his character with a depth he hasn’t shown since ‘Mad Men’ gives the movie a lot of charm.
Unfortunately, the bold ideas and excellent performances are undermined by a script that never seems on the same low-key page as everyone bringing it to life. No matter how strong or touching any scene of the film is, you can always be certain that an obnoxiously on-the-nose line over-explaining the themes of the movie will hit eventually. Or if that doesn’t happen, some needlessly manipulative music cue or shot will spoil the magic. It makes ‘Nostalgia’ a frustrating viewing experience. The movie delves down so many intriguing avenues and serves up so many wonderful performances that it’s endlessly irritating to see the subtle success of the picture betrayed by gratuitous explaining and sentimentality over and over again.
That’s a problem with many contemporary dramas. The screenwriting guru dogma has seeped so deeply into the Hollywood development process that no script is approved unless it checks enough of the boxes that the executives feel make a movie complete. That leads to overwriting and over-explaining, and movies like ‘Nostalgia’ being weighed down by audience pandering. It’s particularly painful to watch that happen here as the movie does so many interesting things. These are little things, mostly what amounts to a matter of taste in storytelling, but they’re enough to topple the whole production. On the whole, ‘Nostalgia’ is a strong movie, but all those little tonal inconsistencies and lapses in writing add up. It doesn’t kill the movie, but it does dilute things enough to ensure this project will disappear and all the good work of the cast will go to waste.