John Krasinski’s move from television to the big screen has thus far not been a particularly happy one. His effort to translate the nice-guy, gawky persona he honed on “The Office,” which suggested that he might become a new Jimmy Stewart (or a new Tom Hanks, who actually has been the new Jimmy Stewart), has floundered in a succession of pictures—things like “License to Wed,” “Leatherheads” and “Aloha”—that might have looked good on paper but have mostly turned out badly.
Now Krasinski takes to the director’s chair, and his ability to choose once again fails him. He’s elected to helm (and take a leading role in) an ensemble piece written by Jim Strouse that resembles nothing more than one of those wan dysfunctional-family dramedies that pop up all too frequently on both big and small screens. “The Hollars” features an array of characters that are immediately recognizable—unfortunately not from real life but from innumerable movies and TV series of the same sad sort. Despite the title it’s certainly nothing to shout about.
Krasinski plays John Hollar, who lives in New York City with his pregnant girlfriend Rebecca (Anna Kendrick). A wannabe graphic-novel artist suffering from writer’s block and reluctance to commit to marriage, he’s understandably depressed—a condition that’s exacerbated when word arrives that his mother Sally (Margo Martindale), a predictable “force of nature” type, has been diagnosed with a brain tumor—news that utterly flummoxes her dependent husband Don (Richard Jenkins).
Rebecca immediately puts John on a plane back home, where his older brother Ron (Sharlton Copley), who’s moved back to the Hollar homestead after his divorce, castigates him about never calling. He also tells John that Don’s plumbing and heating business is on the verge of bankruptcy. To complicate matters further, John is treated with hostility by his mother’s hospital nurse Jason (Charlie Day), who suspects him of still being interested in his old girlfriend Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who’s now Jason’s wife. (He isn’t, but an embarrassing dinner scene shows that she still has the hots for him.) As if all that weren’t enough, Ron is still obsessing over his ex-wife Stacey (Ashley Dyjke) and their two adorable daughters, despite the fact that she’s now with—and presumably married to—Reverend Dan (Josh Groban), the good-natured youth minister at the family’s church; Ron goes so far as to break into their house to spend the night with the girls.
The plot turns would make up a considerable list of predictably bad screenwriting decisions. There are heart-to-heart moments between members of the Hollar clan. There are archly cute sessions with Doctor Fong (Randall Park), the surgeon who will operate on Sally. There’s that grating dinner sequence when John goes to Jason and Gwen’s. There’s a throwaway cameo by Mary Kay Place as Don’s sister, who works in the office at his failing firm. There are scenes of Jenkins blubbering and trying to come to terms with his wife’s illness. There are conversations in which the oh-so-understanding Reverend Dan tries to calm down surly Ron. There’s the nostalgia trip when John visits the old swimming hole, swings on the tire that takes him over the pond and…well, you know. There’s the inevitable sequence in which John and Sally escape the hospital to enjoy one more visit to an ice-cream parlor before her operation. And worst of all, there are the later sequences involving Rebecca, who shows up at the Hollars’ house, having taken a cab for eight hours from the Big Apple. She arrives, of course, not long before her water breaks, necessitating a frantic drive to the hospital. (No bonus points will be allotted to anyone speculating on what the birth of the child will be juxtaposed with; the “cycle of life” vibe of the movie is far too obvious to give any credit for a correct prediction.)
What partially redeems the picture are the performances of Martindale and Jenkins, who could play these parts in their sleep but are always worth watching, however mediocre the material; she makes a scene in which her head is shaved for the surgery touching by sheer force of will, and he carries a sequence at the close in which he receives a couple of handwritten notes. By contrast everyone else is largely wasted (Kendrick, Place, Groban) or pallid (Krasinski) or way overwrought (Copley, Day, Winstead). Technically the picture is pretty drab as well: the unidentified locations are nondescript, Eric Alan Edward’s lensing undistinguished, and the editing by Heather Pearsons follows an irritating pattern, with the scenes interrupted by snatches of the bland songs by Josh Ritter that serve as transitional devices.
At one point in “The Hollars,” John bears his heart to Sally, saying “Let’s face it—I’ll never be an artist.” On the admittedly incomplete basis suggested by this pale, pasty sitcom of a movie, that like might well apply to John Krasinski.