A film can convey grief, but if it does so mawkishly it can also cause you to regret your decision to watch the picture in the first place. That’s the case with “Nostalgia,” a well-meaning but ponderous piece that offers a quartet of interrelated stories about the aftermath of loss.
Using the familiar gambit of moving from chapter to chapter by a slender connection, like runners passing the baton to one another in a relay race (though it they were moving at the lugubrious pace of the picture, they’d finish last), Alex Ross Perry’s script begins with an insurance investigator (John Ortiz) visiting an elderly widower (Bruce Dern) at his cluttered home at the behest of the man’s granddaughter (Amber Tamblyn), whose concern appears to be over her potential inheritance.
The assessor then moves on to the rubble of the home of a widow (Ellen Burstyn) that’s been devastated by a fire. She’s despondent at losing most of the mementos of the life she shared with her late husband, and annoyed by the suggestion of her son (Nick Offerman) that she consider moving into assisted living. She responds by taking the few valuables that survived the blaze to a Las Vegas appraiser (Jon Hamm) who tells her that one of them—a mint baseball bearing Ted Williams’ signature—is quite valuable.
The narrative then follows the appraiser to his childhood home, which his parents have left to move to Florida. There he and his sister (Catherine Keener) will go through all the stuff left behind, deciding what to keep and what to get rid of. Memories intrude upon their work, of course, but the most important intervention comes with the appearance of her daughter (Annalise Basso), who questions the importance of physical mementos in an age when photos and texts can so easily be stored digitally.
Then a tragedy occurs, during which the girl’s father (James Le Gros) is compelled to offer a sad rejoinder to his daughter’s observation. Her best friend (Mikey Madison) contributes to that conversation, even as her dad (Patton Oswald) can offer little but the most conventional sort of consolation.
An accomplished cast brings what they can to this catena of gloom and sadness, but even the finest actors and actresses can do only so much with scenes that require little more than walking around glumly, looking off longingly into the distance, and of course weeping. There’s lots of crying in “Nostalgia,” and plenty of tear-covered faces when full-bore sobs are not required. Keener and Le Gros probably handle the requirement best, with Burstyn and Madison not far behind. But luckiest of all are Basso and Dern, who aren’t required to wallow. Indeed, the latter seems to have fun playing the only truly rambunctious character on tap; he does his usual crotchety routine with ease.
Cinematographer Matt Sakatani Roe and editor Arndt-Wulf Peemoiler work alongside Pellington to endow the picture with the somber tone and funereal pace the screenplay demands, and Laurent Eyquem’s score follows suit.
Despite an occasional moving moment, however, this cinematic dirge fails to achieve the degree of profundity it’s obviously aiming for.