Sunday, February 20, 2011

Welcome to the Rileys: Grade A


Welcome to the Rileys (2010)

James Gandolfini, Kristen Stewart, Melissa Leo; Director Jake Scott.

I never saw The Sopranos series, so I don’t have Gandolfini typecast in my mind. That’s a good thing, because in this movie he is completely believable as a middle-aged plumbing supply merchant from Indianapolis. He and his wife of thirty years (Stewart, who strongly reminds me of Patricia Clarkson, in look, acting style, and talent), are distant from each other because they lost a 15 year old daughter in a car crash. The wife blames herself because she was following the girl, and the husband tacitly agrees to that by letting her blame herself. She is traumatized and never leaves the house. At a conference in New Orleans, he calls home and says he is not coming back “for a while.”

In New Orleans, he meets a 16 year old stripper/prostitute (Leo), and informally adopts her, fixing up her derelict flat and giving fatherly advice. He claims he does not know why he is doing this but the viewer can see he is trying to resurrect his daughter. Eventually, his wife joins him in there, “mothers” the girl but has the sense to realize the situation is unhealthy. The girl finally runs from them, claiming “It is way too late for me to be anybody’s little girl.”

The writing is very strong (Ken Hixon) and true. Every line of dialog is on target. The acting is superior, especially by Gandolfini and Stewart. Stewart’s character takes a while to get going because there’s only so much acting you can do as a stunned, near-catatonic recluse. But late in the film she shows real depth. Leo has a stereotype character, really just a foil for the adults to work out their relationship, but there are several scenes in which it is clear that she has serious talent.

There are technical problems with the cinematography. Many scenes are so dark and muddy, it is impossible to make out what is going on. Sure, they are nominally night scenes, but still, memo to the cinematographer: photography requires light! In one scene, the picture actually drops in brightness by 50% as if there had been a power failure, but it is just a technical goof-up. The director pulled some terrific performances out of these players, but there are far too many “dead zone” scenes of people driving or sleeping. Seriously, how interesting is it to watch somebody sleep?

The story itself is not very original (grief over a lost child), but the main characters are so well developed and their acting is so outstanding, that despite its flaws, the movie is highly watchable anyway.

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