The steady stream of warm-hearted geezer comedies from the British Isles continues with this amiable but slight adaptation of a story by Irish writer Maeve Binchy. “How About You”—which takes its title from the old standard and its theme from the innumerable books and movies about casting off despondency and learning to live again. That idea is to be found not just in the four grumpy old residents of an assisted-living home whose spirits are revived at Christmastime but also in the wayward young woman who winds up as their caretaker during the holidays.
Hayley Atwell plays Ellie, a gal with boyfriend trouble and a checkered past who winds up at the facility run by her sister Kate (Orla Brady) looking for a place to stay. A widow struggling to keep the place solvent and satisfactory to government inspectors, Kate reluctantly takes her on, and Ellie soon gets involved with one of the residents, sweet Alice (the late Joan O’Hara, to whom the film is dedicated), whom she takes on an unauthorized jaunt down to the riverside and supplies with a reefer before the lady dies happy.
But the real problem for Kate is four long-time guests whose grouchiness and refusal to observe the rules antagonize other residents and cause endless minor crises. One is diva Georgia (Vanessa Redgrave), an erstwhile singer-dancer whose love of martinis she flaunts despite a no-alcohol policy. Then there’s Donald (Joss Ackland), a retired judge who relishes baiting and berating everyone around him. And finally spinster sisters Heather and Hazel (Brenda Fricker and Imelda Staunton), the former dominating and irascible, the latter a timid, agoraphobic wallflower.
These are characters that seem like leftovers from “Separate Tables,” but such residents-in-a-common-dining-room allow for some moderately amusing, if formulaic and treacly, interplay. During the Christmas season, when most of the residents leave to spend time with friends and family but the troublesome quartet are left behind and Kate is compelled to go off on a family emergency, Ellie and the four oldsters must come together. They—you guessed it—bond, helping one another to overcome what’s been bugging them for years. The problems—Donald’s guilt over the alcoholism that ruined his relationship with his dead wife, Georgia’s loneliness and yearning for the old limelight, Hazel’s anger over Heather’s effort to keep her from knowing about the child she was forced to give up for adoption (as well as Ellie’s decision to sever ties with her faithless lover)—are about as predictable as one can get, and the way they’re handled via outings, joint meals, dancing and a bit of drug use is hardly surprising.
Still, when you’ve got people like Redgrave, Ackland, Fricker and Staunton on hand, there are bound to be occasional bright moments, even if Anthony Byrne often doesn’t seem to give them much in the way of direction, preferring to let them break loose and then break down. And cinematographer Des Whelan apparently prefers a catch-as-catch-can approach with them (in the dance scene most obviously), though he does prove capable of securing some nicely painterly landscape shots in the good-looking locations. The score, which uses lots of holiday standards as well as the expected pop songs, comes on just as strong as the actors.
But being too hard on the movie would be like berating an elderly aunt. “How About You” is clearly aimed at those, mostly older and largely female, who dote on a mixture of elder sassiness, sentiment and mild naughtiness that gives viewers of a certain age a warm, comfortable glow. It will satisfy them. Others will find the sugary aftertaste hard to stomach.