Producers: Hans Canosa, Kelsey Law, Brian Keady and Gabrielle Zevin Director: Hans Canosa Screenplay: Gabrielle Zevin Cast: Kunal Nayyar, Lucy Hale, Christina Hendricks, Blaire Brown, Lauren Stamile, Charlotte Thanh Theresin, Jordyn McIntosh, Lizzy Brooks, Joe Penczak, David Arquette and Scott Foley Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
What works on the printed page can’t always be replicated on screen, a lesson that’s made evident by this tale of a morose widowed bookseller whose passion for life is resurrected when he adopts a toddler who’s been abandoned in his shop and finds romance with a young, charming publisher’s representative. That scenario would suffice for most movies, but “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is as cluttered with characters and subplots as Fikry’s store is with piles of books.
Fikry (Kunal Nayyar) is introduced as an irascible, sarcastic fellow whose store on Alice Island, off the Massachusetts coast, has gone to seed after the death of his wife. He treats potential customers with disdain, and is surly and dismissive toward Amy (Lucy Hale), the rep who travels from the mainland to pitch a memoir in which an old man reminisces about his marriage after his wife’s death. After shooing her and the browsers away, he retreats home for the evening, takes a few bites from what appears to be an unappetizing TV dinner, gets drunk, and falls blearily asleep while gazing at his one true treasure—a first edition copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tamerlane”—which he intends to sell, retiring on the proceeds.
But when he awakens the book is gone, and soon after he finds the child, a girl named Maya, on the floor of his shop. Both matters take him to the police, whose chief Lambiase (David Arquette), a likably laid-back fellow, can do little about either. Since everybody in town knew about the book and there are no clues as to who took it, its recovery is unlikely. And since it will take time for authorities from the mainland to get to the island to take charge of Maya, Fikry volunteers to mind her for a few days.
That turns into a permanent state of affairs, of course, and one element of the turgid narrative is to watch the toddler (Charlotte Thanh Theresin) grow into a perky kid (Jordyn McIntosh) and then a teen (Blaire Brown) who writes stories about where she might have come from. The question of her paternity eventually proves to involve Fikry’s sister-in-law Ismay (Christine Hendricks), her novelist husband Daniel (Scott Foley) and a college student (Lizzy Brooks). And it turns out to be connected to the theft of the Poe volume too.
Meanwhile, the emotionally revived Fikry enters into a prolonged will-they-or-won’t-they romantic dance with Amy, a long-distance relationship that’s both implausible and inevitable. The result is a “new family” drama that’s meant to be sweet but comes off as sappy instead. A strange blast from the past pops up after the threesome of Fikry, Amy and Maya is well established, when Fikry invites Leon Friedman (Joe Penczak), the author of that old-man memoir that led Amy to come to the shop in the first place, to travel to the island for a book reading. That sparks a revelation about one of the attendees (Lauren Stamile) that’s apparently meant to say something profound about art and life, or destiny and coincidence, but proves to be merely baffling.
The central problem with the film is that in rethinking her novel for the screen, Gabrielle Zevin has failed to do the work of pruning and streamlining that a successful adaptation demands; the screenplay is simply overstuffed and ill-constructed. But it’s also clumsily realized. Hans Canosa’s direction lacks precision and energy, and Jason Nicholson’s editing allows things to simply stumble from scene to scene. Alex Vendler’s cinematography and Lili Teplan’s production design make little of the setting, while Jeff Eden Fair’s score is emotionally bland.
It’s predictable, then, that the cast seems stranded. Nayyar tries to invest Fikry with some depth, but despite the changes it undergoes the character remains shallow and unfocused. The others follow the languid beats of the script without adding much to them; it speaks volumes that Arquette’s cop is practically indistinguishable from the one he played in the “Scream” franchise. Not even the three girls playing Maya make much of an impression.
So what was intended as a heartwarming tale of loss and love emerges as a shapeless misfire.