Vet playwright Adam Rapp stays too close to his theater sensibilities in debut feature, exploring what happens when a sullen Gotham actor returns home to visit her washed-up novelist father. Some fine work from Zooey Deschanel and a becalmed Will Ferrell. Late October self-distrib opening will be suitably modest.

Vet playwright Adam Rapp stays too close to his theater sensibilities in debut feature, “Winter Passing,” exploring what happens when a sullen Gotham actor returns home to visit her washed-up novelist father. Family drama appears content to present the situation without going for anything remotely close to the emotional jugular. Result is unsatisfying and even dreary, despite some fine work from Zooey Deschanel and a becalmed Will Ferrell. Late October self-distrib opening will be suitably modest.

A member of a serious theater company in downtown New York, Reese Holden (Deschanel) seems exhausted, despite her youth, by the struggling actor life. Generally unsociable and sour, she has a fairly ridiculous-seeming b.f., who looks like a Kurt Cobain-wannabe (Dallas Roberts) and is unable to share her obviously tortured feelings with warm, supportive company member Deirdre (Deirdre O’Connell, transcendent as always). She takes pal Rob (Robert Beitzel) to bed, but it’s soulless.

Stirring up this sorry condition is book editor Lori (Amy Madigan), who would dearly love to publish the love letters shared between Reese’s late novelist mother and her living novelist dad Don (Ed Harris). With a cash advance, Reese ventures to her dad’s Michigan home, where “Winter Passing” begins in earnest.

Strained eccentricity rules the day at the Holden household, where the shy and slightly absurd Corbit (Will Ferrell) handles domestic matters, and Don’s British ex-student Shelly (Amelia Warner) oversees Don’s business matters, such as they are. Reese carries chips on both shoulders, but Deschanel is a smart enough actor to restrain the script’s overt characterization of a woman seething with resentment. Deschanel’s eye and behavior explain the cause of Reese’s well of hate long before the dialogue lays out the points.

Harris, on the other hand, is stuck with the cliched literary role of the has-been novelist whose best work (tomes about California ’60s radicals) is well past, but who may have one last book ready to reveal to the world. It’s an extremely circumscribed role, without the space for surprising dimensions, and the film suffers from it.

Then there’s the dull, repetitive competition between Reese and Shelly, whom Reese feels has taken over her role as daughter. She also feels she was raised by two geniuses unable to give her proper attention. These elements could be the stuff of great drama, but Rapp never penetrates below the most superficial level of the various situations.

For some, Ferrell’s presence will be unsuitable to such serious matters, but he wisely eschews his familiar shtick for a register he hasn’t displayed before, playing a guy who’s set aside his dreams to take care of another person — but who is so painfully withdrawn that he can’t get at what’s bothering that person. Ferrell’s Corbit may be the scenario’s saddest figure.

Pic’s failure to push matters to dramatic heights frustrates the good cast. A chain of fairly upbeat conclusions in the wake of the script’s unrealized potential plays as false.

Title thoroughly indicates pic’s visual patina, combined with a grainy texture to Terry Stacey’s lensing. The material’s stage origins fortunately never appear in Rapp’s camera arrangements, which remain persistently bland. A contemplative note is struck by composer John Kimbrough’s piano-guitar score.

Winter Passing

Production

A Yari Film Group release of a Focus Features/Stratus Film Co. presentation of a Laura Bickford/Mint Pictures production. Produced by P. Jennifer Dana, David Koplan. Executive producers, Mark Gordon, Bob Yari, Laura Bickford. Co-producer, Anthony G. Katagas. Directed, written by Adam Rapp.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Terry Stacey; editor, Meg Reticker; music, John Kimbrough; music supervisor, Linda Cohen; production designer, David Korins; art director, Lucio Seixas; set decorator, JoAnn Vara; costume designer, Victoria Farrell; sound (Dolby Digital), Noah Timan; supervising sound editor, Dave Paterson; associate producers, Lawrence Inglee, Erin Eggers; assistant director, Amanda Slater; casting, Laura Rosenthal. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 9, 2005. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Don Holden - Ed Harris Reese Holden - Zooey Deschanel Corbit - Will Ferrell Shelly - Amelia Warner Lori Lansky - Amy Madigan Ray - Dallas Roberts Rob - Robert Beitzel Deirdre - Deirdre O'Connell
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