About which one can simply note, it doesn’t pass fast enough. Playwright Adam Rapp (brother of actor Anthony, who takes a small role as a hitchhiking lit student), directing his first feature from his own script, has come up with a feeble domestic drama about a surly young woman making peace with her estranged father, a reclusive, decrepit J.D. Salinger-like novelist who apparently hasn’t written anything in years. By turns clumsily melodramatic, ostentatiously quirky and crudely sentimental, “Winter Passing” feels like cinematic leftovers that have been warmed up, but not quite enough.

The central character is Reese Holden (Zooey Deschanel), a sullen actress trying to make it off-Broadway, who happens to be on the outs with her father Don (Ed Harris), an author who made a splash with his edgy books during the rebellious sixties but has had a long dry spell since and disappeared into the family’s small-town Michigan home. When Reese learns from a literary researcher (Amy Madigan) that her late mother bequeathed her a box of old letters exchanged with Don and offers a hundred grand for the right to publish them, Reese reluctantly agrees to take the bus back to the Midwest (she doesn’t fly, you see) and retrieve them.

What she finds is a curious “household” indeed. The frail, grizzled, alcoholic Don is tended by an ex-student of his, Shelly (Amelia Warner), an ostensibly cool, reserved Brit who idolizes her old mentor and runs the cluttered place with as much efficiency possible under the circumstance. But Don also has a second caretaker: a shy, withdrawn man-child named Corbit (Will Ferrell), who keeps people away from Don, plays golf with him in a closed upstairs room with walls now pock-marked from the balls, and devotes his remaining time to playing rock music on an old guitar (he used to be in a Christian rock band, you see, until his stage fright led them to dump him). What happens over the course of time is that the initially hostile and incredulous Reese gradually bonds with Shelly and Corbit, works out the tangled web of unhappy memories remaining from her childhood with Don, and returns to New York a changed young woman–not only feeling she’s acquired a new family back in Michigan but finally ready to build the deep relationships that she’d resisted in the past, especially with a grungy but pleasant guy named Ray (Dallas Roberts).

An old-fashioned tale of family reconciliation–which is basically what “Winter Passing” is–isn’t necessarily doomed. But in trying to give the familiar story a distinctive feel, Rapp has strayed badly. In Reese he’s fashioned a character so snippy and unpleasant that, even in the hands of the expressive Deschanel, she’s more off-putting than sympathetic. Don, meanwhile, is pretty much the caricature of the over-the-hill scribe, and while Harris brings a certain grave but bedraggled dignity to him, the effect never quite convinces; and Shelly is so controlled and abrupt a figure as played by Warner that she remains remote even after a big revelation about her past. What really sinks the film, though, is Ferrell, whose performance as the retiring, supposedly charming Corbit is reminiscent of another crazy comic who’s gone repeatedly wrong trying to damp down the wildness and become sweetly mild and befuddled–Robin Williams. We all know how badly that’s turned out, and while Ferrell’s attempt to make this character a lovable oddball isn’t quite as awful, it’s bad enough. But he can’t be totally blamed–Rapp has made up Corbit out of quirks and whimsies rather than genuine human characteristics: even the way the fellow was supposed to have come into Don’s life (just being found sleeping on his couch) is too cute for words, and the golf business is so outlandish it halts any chance to suspend disbelief from that point on. There’s not much compensation on the technical side. Rapp’s direction is at best functional, and the visuals he and cinematographer Terry Stacey have fashioned are rather dull and inelegant. John Kimbrough’s spare score doesn’t make much of an impression, either.

Like a play that opens but is destined to close quickly without fanfare, “Winter Passing” is earnest but bland. How it attracted so starry a cast is inexplicable, but even their best efforts can’t rescue it from its innate shallowness.