Best-known for his affably smug shenanigans on The Office, John Krasinski brings his own brand of bittersweet humor to his sophomore directorial effort, The Hollars. Less acerbic than his first film, the darkly comic adaptation of David Foster’s Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, his family dramedy follows the titular Hollars clan through a pivotal time of crisis and change.
Krasinki pulls double-duty, not only helming but also starring as the film’s angst-ridden anti-hero John Hollar, a 30-something on the brink of parenthood who hates his job and wavers on committing to his very pregnant girlfriend (Anna Kendrick). But John’s problems are pushed to the back burner when the failing health of his mother Sally (Margo Martindale) calls him back to his hometown. There, John is pitched into the role of mediator between his reckless brother Ron (Sharlto Copley) and his floundering father Don (Richard Jenkins), and tossed into an awkward love triangle with his high school sweetheart (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and her jealous husband (Charlie Day).
Following in the footsteps of films like Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays, Thomas Bezucha’s The Family Stone, and Shawn Levy’s This Is Where I Leave You, Krasinksi’s Hollars aims to capture that complex tangle of familiar love and frustration. It’s a notoriously tricky balance to achieve, molding characters fun enough to love but flawed enough to be relatable. Though he’s collected a pretty stellar ensemble, Krasinski’s execution lacks nuance, leaning hard into theatrical performances that undercut big emotional beats.
Famous for gamely cartoonish performances in genre offerings like Chappie, District 9, and Hardcore Henry, Copley feels miscast as John’s townie brother. When Ron begins a silly slap fight with father in a hospital room, it’s jarring. By the time he’s bickering with his ex-wife’s dedicatedly decent boyfriend (Josh Groban in dad jeans), Copley has forced The Hollars into the realm of Will Ferrell-style broad comedy. But this earnest indie doesn’t payoff on the big outrageous set pieces such a tone promises, opting for a meeker, more Sundance-friendly mischief.
As a yowling nurse/scowling romantic rival, Day is just a small step from from his It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia persona. And Krasinski plays his role so sitcom-broad that he seems a heartbeat away from staring down the camera lens with a “Can you believe these people?” shrug as he has so many times before on The Office. To their credit, both Winstead and Kendrick add some sincerity to the proceedings. But regrettably, the script by James C. Strouse gives their characters little to do beyond dote on or worry about John, wasting the talents of both.
Thankfully, rightly celebrated character actors Martindale and Jenkins manage to bring depth and tender pathos to their roles, sharing weighted glances that elegantly communicate a rich, shared history, laced with love, regret and secrets. A shot of Jenkins’ shattered expression grounds the severity of bad news in an instant. Later, his tremulous voice rising in song reverberates with a powerful hope that shook me to my core. Martindale, whether chuckling at her carrying-on kids or whispering her potential last words, is radiant onscreen, commanding audience attention and allegiance with her every breath.
At 88 minutes, The Hollars is drastically lean, abandoning characters like John’s lusty ex and Don’s devoted sister (Mary Kay Place), and racing through a subplot of Ron’s redemption to a finale so upbeat it might give you emotional whiplash. Still, there’s a fair amount of charm to be enjoyed in The Hollars. Flawed and often fighting, the family at its center boasts enough shared charm that they demand empathy even amid some unsavory choices. And a sprightly soundtrack full of acoustic guitars and climaxing with a classic Indigo Girls’ jam keeps things rollicking along.
The wonky tone endangers the film’s emotional resonance, but Martindale is it’s saving grace. When she speaks in a hush, we lean in to listen. When she sounds off a hearty laugh, our hearts swell to receive its enormity. She is authentically Mom, binding us to her onscreen family, whatever their flaws, and guiding us through The Hollars’ roughest edges with a vibrant warmth that makes this fumbling film feel alive.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 burritos, with plenty of cheese, but not enough spice.
Images: Sony Pictures Classic