In The Hollars, sophomore director John Krasinski refreshingly manages to play off any festival circuit predictability despite obvious Sundance appeal. You’ve seen cinematic families like this before, laughed at their dysfunction, and suffered their heartbreaks – but Krasinski’s latest genre addition is different. This All-American dramadey soulfully hits on all of life’s beginnings, middles and ends with a wacky sincerity, strolling through the motions with a little more pep then most. Suburbia by way of a melodramatic chaos, scored by whispering songsters who pluck their acoustic guitars like they’re pulling at our heartstrings. Like I said, you’ve seen this all before – just typically less jubilant, and with dead generics where emotional fireworks should explode.
Director John Krasinski stars as John Hollar, a mid-life-crisis sufferer who returns home when his mother is diagnosed with a brain tumor. It’s not that John doesn’t want to go home, it’s more that bad timing and a sick mother bring him home at the worst possible time. Brother Ron (Sharlto Copley) begrudges John for thinking he’s a high-and-mighty New Yorker, father Don (Richard Jenkins) is about to lose his business and mama Sally (Margo Martindale) is facing a life-threatening surgery – and that’s not even touching John’s fears of failure, his impending fatherhood with girlfriend (not wife) Rebecca (Anna Kendrick) and a billion other dramatic notes ringing throughout the Hollar’s familial calamity. Welcome home, John…
Krasinski might never wander away from the path of least resistance, but The Hollars is an emotionally in-touch slice of Americana culture that wofts the comforting aroma of home. It’s short, sweet and to the point, never extrapolating plotted linchpins beyond their highest climax. Case and point is John’s high school flame Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whose only scene involves a quick pre-dinner altercation with none of the messy love-triangle afterwards. Even when a very pregnant Rebecca shows up at Don’s doorstep – desperately missing John – Gwen is never heard from again. There’s already enough going on with John’s mother, brother and everyone else, that even though no movie has suffered from more Mary Elizabeth Winstead (ever), Krasinski displays focus in the face of an almost comical abundance of conflicts. Trimming fat with the knife-skills of a celebrated butcher.
More important than one man’s journey is Krasinski’s ability to hit upon the circle of life. Birth, death, and everything in between. The Hollars finds a way to comment on “no regrets” by digging through the murkiest, darkest lows anyone could face, then juxtaposing them against the beauty and excitement of uncertainty. Highs will always be followed by lows, just like how lows are accompanied by redemption. A Hallmark-y story that avoids stereotypical schmaltz, and boats genuine moments of feeling that range from gutting heartbreak (Don’s meltdowns) to hilarious sincerity (Ron’s exchanges with Josh Groban’s new-boyfriend-Reverend character). This is a film steeped in bonding moments that never becomes truly eye-roll worthy.
Of course, Krasinski started with a leg-up with actors like Richard Jenkins, an accent-stripped Sharlto Copley, Margo Martindale, Anna Kendrick, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Charlie Day – I mean, can you make a bad movie with those talents (shhhh)? Jenkins alone weeps and sulks as his character battles the utter agony caused by his wife’s condition, while Martindale chomps away on ice-cream-covered pretzels and slings motherly wisdom from her hospital bed. She’s established as the stronger-half all film, until a pre-surgery breakdown brings about an emotionally-defining haymaker. Most of Jim Strouse’s screenplay favors lighter-spectrum material – from a calming rendition of the Indigo Girls to Ron’s casual karate racism – but every character is offered a teary, honest platform at some point, and most of them deliver their crescendo with impassioned meaning.
It’s not exactly a steaming-hot apple pie baked by grandma, but The Hollars is still a fresh bakery dessert that’s a step below the real thing. Moods are affected by Krasinski’s personal touch in ways that elevate an admittedly generic story, which is enough to avoid complete and total genre blandness on all fronts. Comedic interludes are good and the performances are better (Krasinski himself brings the confused, cynical thunder), scoring one heavy family reunion that’ll make you laugh, cry and – most importantly – feel something real – not just waterworks spiked by cheap cinematic onions. It’s rejuvenation through grief and pain, fully exposed by a message that’s only ever uplifting.
Just trust that it takes a good damn movie to reduce my words to that of a mushy greeting card lyricist…
The Hollars certainly doesn't rewrite hometown drama, but Krasinski's bright directorial personality is enough to avoid a generic, forgettable fate.