Don’t think of John Krasinski’s new film, The Hollars, as an example of actorly vanity or celebrity self-indulgence. Think of it simply as a bad film. It’s fashionable to greet projects either written or directed by screen performers sans mercy, and to critique them as evidence of ego, but all art is ego-driven, so you’re better off kvetching about rain being wet. In the case of The Hollars, rain is caustic, too, but also harmless, as most quirky indie comedies sent down the conveyor belt at the quirky indie comedy manufacturing plant tend to be. Krasinski’s film irritates the soul as sulfates irritate the skin—though we should at least should get some honest blistering out of it.
That’s the problem with The Hollars: It’s disingenuous. None of its parts feel authentic or even remotely original. Dysfunctional families have been a popular fixture in film since Julien Duvivier made Poil de carotte in 1925, though there’s perhaps an argument to be made that we’re more attached to maladjusted households on the big screen today than we have ever been. If so, and if Krasinski made The Hollars to tangle with unspoken familial issues of his own, then we’re led to wonder which parts of the film highlight those experiences, and which he came up with just to satisfy the faux-acidity quotient expected in any movie that deals with terminal illness, failed parental bonds, pregnancy scares, economical woe, teenage nostalgia and wound up siblings.
When Krasinski’s character, John, leaves his Big New York City Life™ and returns to his home in small town America, he runs into all contretemps listed above. John’s mother, Sally (Margo Martindale), has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, while the family business is failing. Sally’s troubles don’t beget new troubles for her clan so much as they drags old ones to the surface, where they bob along like domestic detritus. Because John has his life together, at least compared to the rest of his kin, and because he’s a metropolitan type and thus, per screenwriting convention, more capable of rational thought than his less evolved relatives and neighbors, it falls to him to hold the family together.
Garden State, meet Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. The former is the first, most obvious connective reference anyone might make about The Hollars’ ancestry as cinema, though hardly the only one worth making. The Hollars, as a family, call to mind the Tenenbaums, the Griswolds, the Weston-Fordhams and the Hoovers, among others, but they fall on the “wacky” side of dysfunction instead of the “abusive.” Royal Tenenbaum is the kind of person who would spill his soup at a party. John’s dad, Don (Richard Jenkins), is the guy whose lap the soup would fall in. As Sally learns of her delicate mortality, Don comes undone. It helps not at all that his other son, John’s older brother Ron (Sharlto Copley), is a fuck-up, a man divorced from his wife along with all markings of civility. Bar him from the toilet and he’ll piss in the kitchen instead.
As John sighs and eyerolls his way through the Hollars’ sad reunion, his girlfriend, Rebecca (Anna Kendrick), heavily pregnant, wends her way to John’s old stomping ground, where she’s given absolutely nothing to do in The Hollars’ plot and scheme. In the context of the film, that counts as equal treatment. Nobody does much of anything here, save for Ron, who struggles mightily to prove that he’s a good dad despite his shaky relationships with both responsibility and gainful employment. As subplots go, his is fairly standard, which could be said about The Hollars as a whole. But if the content is basic, the craft is wanting: James C. Strouse’s script is slack, the direction is adequate and the editing suggests that Krasinski realized too late that he could have cut out entire side threads without losing anything.
One of those threads is named Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), one of John’s old flames, who is married to doofus Charlie Day. (Day’s character has a name, but it’s irrelevant, since he’s just a muted version of the same shrieking jackass he’s been cast as since It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia became a success.) Gwen appears in The Hollars for no reason other than to tempt John away from Rebecca in an awkwardly staged scene where choice is an illusion. Why would John ever cheat on Rebecca with Gwen? There’s no tension to her advances whatsoever, sexual or dramatic. Of course he’ll stay true. Of course he’ll go back to Rebecca. This just makes Winstead’s efforts a total waste, but that just means she’s in good company with the equally wasted Jenkins and Martindale, though Martindale’s part is underserved by the script while Jenkins, on the other hand, is actively bad, which is a grim miracle. (Copley isn’t wasted so much as he’s just Copley, twitchy and on edge, like a Coke can that’s taken a two-hour ride in a pneumatic paint shaker.)
Gwen isn’t what’s wrong with The Hollars, per se. She’s just a symptom of the maladies that weigh the film down, the chaff and lard which didn’t get sorted or trimmed from Krasinski’s blurry metaphor of a vision. The Hollars isn’t without heart—it’s without purpose or edge, a sanded-down imitation of more sharply told stories about more appallingly messed up people. As in his debut as director, 2009’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, The Hollars doesn’t go far enough. Even if Krasinski’s skills as a filmmaker need honing, chutzpah could have taken him, and his film, someplace interesting.
Writer: James C. Strouse
Starring: John Krasinski, Anna Kendrick, Sharlto Copley, Margo Martindale, Richard Jenkins, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Charlie Day
Release Date: August 26, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.