You know that guy writing on a laptop in a café with a self-assured face that wants everyone to know he’s writing an opus? Nostalgia is the actual screenplay in his computer. It’s the cloying, ham-fisted attempt at a story with philosophical depth and lofty themes that occasionally gets made by someone too big for their britches. The movie itself feels like it has an ego. The characters seem like they know they’re in a movie. They say things that real people never say, and digress for amounts of time that nobody does in casual conversation, showing that the writer has no idea how to express his ideas other than in lengthy monologues.
Mark Pellington, having made a fair amount of films but never reaching major critical acclaim seems to be trying ascend to something greater than his thrillers and other genre films, vying for the type of ensemble drama that badly wants to be taken seriously, like Crash or This Is Where I Leave You. The problem with all of these films is that they forgo a conventional plot in favor of studying people, but don’t put the actual elbow-grease in when it comes to fleshing out complex and compelling characters that feel authentic.
The film revolves around the subject of death, loss, and the meaning in physical objects that people leave behind. Bruce Dern plays a dying man seen in only one scene, who is visited by a stoic insurance agent (John Ortiz) clearly meant to be a representation of grief and healing, as evidenced by his almost supernaturally collected presence and conveniently timed monologues on humanity and life. Ellyn Burstyn plays a widow, Helen, whose house has just burned down, struggling to make a decision on the fate of her late husband’s prized baseball after everything they shared has been destroyed.
The connection between physical objects and a person’s legacy, or their meaning in the lives of their loved ones, is actually a pretty good premise for a film, and could lend itself to great emotional moments and insights. But instead, the only expression of the tangible coinciding with memories are in trite phrases you hear at every funeral you’ve ever been to. Things like heirlooms having stories to tell, having attachment to the place where you grew up, letting go of a person through their belongings, and telling heartwarming stories about the deceased. I don’t want to sound cynical and act like those aren’t very real parts of loss and grieving, it’s just that the form they take in Nostalgia is always on-the-nose, reductive, and sappy.
The clunky writing also has an effect on the performances. Despite having some stellar actors, there are also a few truly bizarre casting decisions, most notable being Nick Offerman as Helen’s son. His dialogue is horribly inorganic and awkward, for a start, and then he also doesn’t seem to shuck away his deadpan comedic tendencies. Every actor has to doll out these awkwardly written soliloquies which are just the voice of the screenwriter waxing poetic, but the miscast Offerman’s delivery has an ironic twinge, like he’s in on a joke. Burstyn, a master of her craft, also struggles to stay convincing, given what she had to work with. At one point, she does a voiceover that sounds like a compilation of the most cringe-inducing and pretentious lines found crumpled up in the trash can outside of a creative-writing workshop. The worst being “can what we hold in our hands be the same as what we hold in our hearts?”
It may be slightly worth mentioning that Nostalgia slowly but surely grows in competency, especially when Jon Hamm’s character, a baseball memorabilia trader, goes to visit his sister (Catherine Keener) to go through their parents’ things. These two characters seem far more real and interesting, and by this point in the film, all of the really egregious dialog has come and gone. Pellington would have been better off accessing some self-control and scrapping the entire first half of the film, focusing instead on the relationship between these specific, detailed characters and seeing how they react upon encountering tragedy. Since half of the running time is used up, the ending feels like the promising midway point of a film that happens to have some college student’s choppy thesis tacked onto the beginning. | Nic Champion