There are many wonderful things that can unite a family – then there are brain tumours. When struggling artist John Hollar (Krasinski) learns that his mother Sally (Martindale) is diagnosed with a brain tumour, he hurries home from New York to the small middle American town in which he grew up. Dr. Fong (Park) informs the family that the tumour has been growing for 10-15 years, but John’s father Don (Jenkins) has been dismissing and misattributing the symptoms. John’s brother Ron (Copley) and their dad aren’t getting along especially well, with Ron still reeling from his divorce with Stacey (Dyke). Stacey has moved on and is married to youth pastor Dan (Groban), much to the ire of Ron. Jason (Day), the nurse tending to Sally, panics on seeing John return, since John and Jason’s wife Gwen (Winstead) were high school sweethearts. Sensing that the family’s trials are wearing on him, John’s pregnant girlfriend Rebecca (Kendrick) arrives in town to keep him company. Will the Hollars sort out their issues and more importantly, will Sally pull through?
The Hollars is Krasinski’s second time in the director’s chair, following 2009’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Krasinski directs from a screenplay by James Strouse, who wrote 2005’s Lonesome Jim, also about a struggling New York creative type temporarily moving back into his parents’ house. The Hollars seems tailor-made for Sundance and film festivals of its ilk, right down to the guitar-led score by singer-songwriter Josh Ritter. While there is a warmth and sincerity to it, The Hollars contains too many sitcom-style jokes that are often cringe-worthy in their obviousness. This is a cast that is studded with interesting, talented performers, but they’re often over-acting. The soap opera melodrama that runs through the plot is too mundane to be dramatic, yet too engineered to feel organic. Standard ‘family drama’ ingredients (terminal illness! Divorce! Pregnancy! Financial troubles!) are tossed into the pot, which is given just a quick stir when it needs to simmer.
This is an ensemble cast that one can’t help but feel bad for, not because the material is embarrassing per se, but because their respective abilities just don’t get the chance to shine through. Copley is more closely identified with the action and sci-fi genres, and while it’s fun to see him stretching outside his wheelhouse, Ron is too much of a caricature to actually connect to. The character is brittle and confrontational, a tragicomic figure whom the audience is meant to laugh at but also sympathise with. It just doesn’t work, but it’s fitfully amusing to listen to Copley wrestle his South African accent to the ground.
Jenkins is a fine actor capable of understated turns, but his hysterical performance here makes him seem like a pretty bad actor. Yes, it’s perfectly alright for someone to be emotional when their wife of several decades is at death’s door, but a subtler, more measured portrayal would have made Don’s struggles easier to identify with. As Don’s wife Sally, Martindale is eminently loveable, a gentle, sweet matriarch who’s trying desperately to hold the family together even as she’s fighting for her life. The trouble is, because of all the subplots unspooling simultaneously, one occasionally forgets that Sally is in the hospital with a brain tumour awaiting surgery. Losing sight of the story’s primary dramatic impetus isn’t usually a good sign.
As the harried, down-on-his-luck nice guy, Krasinski certainly isn’t playing against type, and he’s able to display a fair amount of the aww shucks charm he’s known for. Kendrick never fails to light up the screen, even though there’s not very much more to Rebecca than “pregnant significant other”. Park is a decent straight man, but it goes without saying that he’s more fun to watch when he’s given more room to be funny.
Day is one of those actors who can very easily hop over that line between ‘funny’ and ‘annoying’, staying firmly in the latter camp as the shrill Jason. Winstead is entertaining in her brief appearance – alas, she doesn’t get to spend any screen time with fellow Scott Pilgrim alum Kendrick. Groban is quietly amiable as Rev. Dan, but his range as an actor is demonstrably limited and while he’s displayed a surprising knack for comedy in skits for Jimmy Kimmel Live, he’s stuck playing a straight man here.
The family dysfunction depicted in The Hollars can be quite relatable, but the need to fall back on hackneyed humour (the opening scene features a character urinating into a pitcher in the kitchen) undercuts its potential to be genuinely moving. While several of the performances are enjoyable, others are evidence of miscalculated choices on the part of the actors and director. Above all, it’s covering well-trodden indie comedy-drama territory, and not covering it particularly well.
Summary: Watching The Hollars is like attending a family reunion with well-meaning but awkward and sometimes irritating relatives – but the cooking’s nice, so you grin and bear it.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars