It’s hard to watch Tumbledown without shivering. The movie, set atop the titular mountain and bathed in some truly remarkable scenery, is the quintessential cold winter’s night flick: characters are bundled up to their ears, fireplaces are eternally lit, and the woodland setting practically emits its own smell-o-scope of pine leaves and crisp Maine air. It’s a beautiful, lush movie that houses two somewhat outstanding leads, but by the time the credits roll what it amounts to is as comparatively toothless as a hallmark card.
Up on Tumbledown, Hannah (Rebecca Hall) is eking out a life alone in a little wood cabin that her and her late husband Hunter bought when he was searching for a quiet space to write his next album. Now that he’s dead, she’s left alone in the Maine woods with two dogs, a friend-with-benefits in neighbor Curtis (Joe Manganiello), and an unfinished biography that she can’t make any headway on. Enter Andrew (Jason Sudeikis), a college professor from Manhattan who is Hunter’s biggest fan and wants to immortalize him within the pages of a snotty, all-encompassing late-and-great musicians biography.
The two detest one another off the bat, and that’s the first time Tumbledown succumbs to convention. He calls her a “crazy widow,” and she rips up his note journal containing all the research he’s done on Hunter’s life – and death – over the years. Hannah wants only her wheel-spinning biography to be the tombstone that Hunter needs, and sees Andrew’s book as an impersonal attempt to gain his own fame off of the grave of her husband.
It’s a totally clichéd set-up, but Tumbledown teases in just enough potentially unique ideas into a tired set-up that it works for far longer than it probably should have. A lot of that has to do with Hall and Sudeikis, who are both charming as hell. As a rom-com leading man, Sudeikis is effective at merging goofiness and a little swagger into Andrew. He comes at Hannah with a salvo of collegiate level harangues stocked with phrases like “mortal evanescence” and “edifice of commodification,” but Sudeikis is far too likable for Andrew to ever wallow in off-putting pretension.
Hall is the heart of Tumbledown, though, totally rocking Hannah’s grief-stricken commitment issues in a way that makes her a wholly human, and not frustrating, creation. She can’t move past Hunter’s death, but as Desiree Van Til’s occasionally clever little script points out, there’s a difference between grief and depression. “You’re not depressed,” Andrew explains midway through the movie, “You aren’t waking up at noon, or Skyping with your therapist. You’re grieving.” Hunter’s shadow looms large over her life, but never over the movie itself, which largely escapes its somewhat downcast synopsis thanks to the sheer energy radiating out of its two leads.
Weirdly enough, that’s the beginning of my biggest issue with Tumbledown. Although that we-hate-each-other rom com elephant in the room appears to suggest where all of this ends up, the middle section of the movie attempts to reverse that. The script sets up Andrew and his girlfriend Finley (Dianna Agron) as a happy duo, having friends over for dinner, uniting over their passion for music (she works in the industry), and with zero references to any sort of conflict or schism that could potentially lead to Finley’s downfall.
Worse yet, that entire second act is largely bereft of any sexual tension between Hannah and Andrew. Their jabs and needling banter house a playful, near sibling-like tone, and scenes in which Finley assists Andrew with getting him the job up alone on a mountain with a mysterious woman only cement the possibility that Tumbledown could be less of a rom com and more of a straight-up dramedy. Maybe, I thought to myself, it’s the movie that happens after the ending of a normal romantic tragedy (i.e. Hunter’s death), and we’re just seeing the aftermath. Its top-notch handling of a forlorn, grief-stricken, ghost-like existence certainly backed that theory up.
And then the last twelve minutes happen. Tumbledown forfeits every potentially subversive idea, every fascinating insight into a near PTSD-like state of existence after the death of a loved one, every potential iota of a chance for it to truly stand out from a crowded genre on the exact ending you thought would happen the minute Hannah and Andrew meet. Those twelve minutes encapsulate a fast-forwarded check-list of what the movie essentially would have been doing over 90 minutes had it been completely lame: discussions of emotions, tawdry sex, fights, a ticking clock of separation, and a last minute rush to profess world-shattering, all-encompassing true love.
I know, I know, what do I expect out of a romantic comedy nowadays? Well, when the movie that precedes such a schmaltzy denouement has so many interesting ideas, characters, and situations, a whole helluva lot more than what Tumbledown gave me. I can’t completely fault it for eventually succumbing to its own genre (I guess a movie that has a soft-spoken, indie-rock crooner haunting it was destined to be sappy), and Hall and Sudeikis make Tumbledown wholeheartedly worth a chilly winter’s night viewing, but for a movie that asks so many tough, uncompromising questions of its characters, and audience, its ultimate answer is discouragingly ordinary.
An apocalyptically disappointing third act derails Tumbledown into every cliché promised by its poster, but for long before that it's so genuinely sweet and deeply layered that by the time you get to the I Love You's, you may be smitten, too.