Winter Passing

It’s easy to see what would draw an actor of Ed Harris’s stature to the role of reclusive, tortured novelist Don Holden. Playing the J.D. Salinger-esque writer allows for all the actorly things actors love to do, like play drunk, rage against the machine, try a little tenderness, cavort with a young and attractive woman, and die. And Mr. Harris should be attacking his scenes with the same passion and fervor he puts into practically every role since his first lead role a quarter century ago in George A. Romero’s underappreciated “Knightriders.” But something’s not right here, as his Holden feels like a performance which could have been given by any of Mr. Harris’s peers. It’s as if he was fitted with a restrictor plate before shooting, limiting the power of his output. We don’t go to Ed Harris movies to see him play it safe. We go because he plays the strong and virile male unlike any other actor of his generation, with the force of a fifteen-megaton bomb. If you’re going to emaciate the talent of an Ed Harris, you might as well let the man go and get an acting lightweight like Chevy Chase.

It’s also easy to see what would draw an actor like Will Ferrell to the role of Corbit, Holden’s possibly dim-witted, or just socially awkward, man-servant. All actors who come to prominence for their comedic gifts will eventually want to show audiences they can do more than make us chuckle, as if giving the gift of laughter is something to be frowned upon. Here, Ferrell gets to be funny without being the clown, allowing the moment to provide the humor instead of his doing something silly. It’s a great way to show you have range without doing much of anything.

Our story opens in New York City, where twentysomething Reese Holden (indie film sex symbol Zooey Deschanel) leads an aimless pseudo-Bohemian lifestyle as she pursues an acting career. Not able to find much work outside of tending bar and the occasional off-off-Broadway show, and a partaker of illegal substances usually taken through the nasal canal, Reese is having a hard time making ends meet. She is also having a hard time dealing with the recent death of her mother (also a famous author), manifesting her emotional pain into physical abuse as she slams her hands into any convenient drawer. It is fortuitous that Reese is approached by a book editor (Amy Madigan), who offers the young girl $100,000 for the rights to publish a series of love letters written by her father to her mother during their courting days, which Reese’s mom left to her daughter in her will. As we have no movie if Reese does not at least entertain the offer, the young woman decides it is time to return to her home in Michigan, to see the father she hasn’t seen for several years and retrieve the letters. Once home, Reese is disturbed to find her dad living in the dilapidated garage out back and her room occupied by Shelly (Amelia Warner), one of her father’s former students and a girl younger than she is, who may be her father’s new lover.

The remainder of the film attempts to make the foursome (Dan, Reese, Shelly and Corbit) into some kind of modern day family unit, which doesn’t work because Reese doesn’t really want to be a part of the new family his father has created in the wake of his wife’s death. In fact, it feels a lot like Dan, Shelly and Corbit had a good arrangement going which worked for each other before Reese’s arrival, and the return of the prodigal daughter is the thing that upsets their delicate balance. The family dynamic allegory also does not work because not one of them really shows any kind of affectionate emotion to themselves or each other. Reese isn’t in Michigan due to some family obligation but to get the goods that will set her up financially for a while, although it is made quite clear her father is willing to give her whatever she needs, no questions asked. Dan might want to provide for her however he can, not because he is devoted to his daughter but because of some latent guilt over not being as close to her as he knows he could have been and still could be. Corbit isn’t at the Holden home because he is a fan of the author. In fact, we have no idea who he is or why he’s there. He just happened to be in the house when Dan returned from his wife’s funeral, and the author brought him aboard. And Shelly is just the standard pretty young grad student who now lives with her one-time teacher. The four are standard characters in standard situations, which unfold in standard form. There is nothing special about them or anything they do.

And because this is an indie film, the entire journey is for naught, as Reese decides not to go through with the sale. Her financial situation remains unresolved at story’s end, and could be worse, considering she hasn’t earned an income for the time she was gone and needed to borrow money from the book editor in order to make the trip from New York to Michigan by bus. Whatever lessons she may have learned from her time with her father and his new friends remain internal with her and her alone. Reese remains as aloof and distant at the end as she was at the beginning, which hurts the overall effectiveness of the story. The story is also damaged by the alleged reclusive tendencies of Dan Holden. It is clear exactly who the template is for the character, yet Dan Holden doesn’t seem to have any problem being a teacher, nor having complete strangers stay in their home and eventually become their handyman.

Adapted from one of his unproduced plays, Rapp doesn’t quite have the scope of a filmmaker when telling his story. Many of the scenes are staged and shot as if the actors are still on a stage, and the visuals are as stark as the terrain on which the Holden home sits. Perhaps Rapp’s future films will be able to become more cinematic, but for now, he makes too many of the same rookie filmmaker mistakes which keep similar films with smaller budgets and lesser known casts from even getting a minor theatrical release.

Rating: D