Sundance movies can be pretty easy to spot if you know what you’re looking for. Whether it’s the soft acoustic indie rock soundtrack or the whimsical plot usually involving an impossibly privileged white male enduring some sort of crisis, traveling from a big city to a home life back in the suburbs that feels barely recognizable compared to his current situation. It’ll be quirky and fun, but also a bit of a tearjerker at the same time, often involving known actors in roles that don’t automatically play into their established acting archetypes. Setting transitions often consist of wistful car rides along tree-lined highways, the protagonist’s face reflected upon itself in the passenger side window. If you go to enough film festivals or seek out mid-major independent releases, these films become an inevitability. Some are pretty good. Many are decidedly less so. Such is the post-Garden State independent scene. It can be an uphill battle to overcome that gnawing sense of the familiar.
The Hollars, the sophomore directorial effor from John Krasinski, announces itself as a Sundance movie immediately, following the life of John (Krasinski), an unsettled aspiring comic book artist in New York would finds himself forced to leave his pregnant, pet clothes designer girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) and travel home to be with his mother (Margot Martindale), recently discovered to be suffering from a brain tumor. John’s divorced, deadbeat brother (Sharlto Copley, slightly less grating than usual) and verging-on-bankruptcy father (Richard Jenkins, eternally delightful) are having extreme difficulty coping with the thought of the family matriarch in peril. As is tradition, John will need to find love and inspiration in the world he left behind.
It is exceedingly difficult to deny the surface charms of The Hollars. The cast Krasinski has assembled is a formidable one, bubbling over with charm, compassion and humor. Krasinski brings that hangdog Jim Halpert wit to the big screen, and the performance scales well, especially considering the pedigree of his fellow actors and actresses. Richard Jenkins and Margot Martindale are among the most dependable character actors in Hollywood; their dynamic as the heads of household, with the enfeebled Martindale so much stronger than her healthy husband slowly going to pieces in the chair next to her hospital bed. Sharlto Copley always manages to succeed a little more when he plays an everyman role (more of this and Europa Report, less of Elysium and Old Boy in the future please, Mr. Copley), though he still often flirts with the manic energy that has caused him problems in the past. The principals are propped up well by a deep, eclectic supporting cast, from Anna Kendrick’s adorably neurotic girlfriend to Charlie Day’s psychotically jealous former high school rival turned nurse and Josh Groban’s impossibly perfect youth pastor. Even a too-short cameo from Mary Elizabeth Winstead delights. It is an excellent ensemble, and all involved play their roles with aplomb.
There are limits, however, to how far a cast can go on charm alone without a solid story to act as the foundation. And the story foundation of The Hollars has some serious cracks. Dramatic comedies like this have noticeable diminishing returns over the course of a lifetime of watching film. The ruts formed by how well-trodden these story beats have been are both deep and forbidding. So much of what is seen is clearly telegraphed, content to retreat into the most basic of structures with no particular interest in branching out. The script, from James C. Strouse, has some good lines and solid jokes, but otherwise fails to generate interest, undone by some too cute by half plot developments in the third act that cut off any earned emotional resonance at the knees. It remains watchable throughout, and the charisma of the cast manages to paper over the cracks a bit, but the strength of the cast also means a simply watchable film is not good enough.
There is something to be said for a film that manages to provide a good time at the theater. And, for the most part, The Hollars succeeds at that baseline goal. The cast is so good that having them watch paint dry and talk about it would be considered at least worthwhile. Worryingly, though, the film doesn’t provide much beyond the level of watching paint dry, and its overwhelming sense of been here before “indie-ness” prevails more than anything else. Mediocre may be too strong a word, but it’s not far off. More than anything else, The Hollars feels like a missed opportunity. It is by no means a disastrous effort for John Krasinski, but it is an eminently forgettable one.