The Pacific Northwest looks spectacular, but nothing else feels organic about “The River Why.” Based on the cultishly beloved 1983 first novel by David James Duncan (who successfully sued to get his name taken off the pic’s credits), writer-director Matthew Leutwyler’s latest reps a step toward the mainstream after several down-and-dirtier genre exercises (“Unearthed,” “Dead and Breakfast,” “Road Kill”). Unfortunately, he fumbles with a mix of choppy narrative, pretentious verbiage, inspirational coming-of-age cliches and one-dimensional characters that an impressive name cast can’t redeem. Still, that roster should smooth the pic’s path to DVD and tube sales; theatrical prospects are iffy.
Stuck with a truckload of philosophizin’ narration that becomes the script’s main glue, and which his nasal voice is ill suited to deliver, Zach Gilford (TV’s “Friday Night Lights”) plays Gus Orviston, eldest son of two eternally warring opposites: Dad (William Hurt) is a famous author and fly fisherman who carries himself rather like Monopoly’s Rich Uncle Pennybags, while Mom (Kathleen Quinlan) is a flinty, feisty country gal and bait fisherwoman.
A love of catching things wet ‘n’ squirmy appears to be perhaps the only thing they share, besides their alleged “Mozart of angling” offspring, Gus. When Gus can stand their dinner-table battles no more, he storms out on the family (also including Gattlin Griffith as an inevitably cutesy-precocious little bro), renting an isolated river cabin in order to fish all day, every day, without unpleasant human interruption.
However, fellow bipeds do soon make his acquaintance, including know-nothing yet popular newspaper fishing columnist Dutch (William Devane) and local Truman Capote wannabe Titus (Dallas Roberts). These figures are no more credible than supposed fly-fishing whiz Eddy (Amber Heard), a blonde babe who looks as though her chosen sport would be a combination of yoga and tanning. It takes a while — but not long enough — for Gus to get their cloyingly artificial romance going.
Meanwhile, he suffers all kinds of windily articulated angst pondering his place in life, what is a soul, does God exist, etc. These are appropriate to his age, but neither script nor direction is nuanced enough to make these digressions seem more than awkwardly tacked-on stabs at unearned depth — whereas by general consensus, Duncan’s original “The River Why” makes such concerns profoundly central.
Of course it’s always difficult to convey literature’s more intellectual or psychological aspects onscreen. But this cinematic “Why” can’t even convince us that anyone onscreen actually knows how to fish. Virtually every major actor has done exceptional work elsewhere, but here they run a gamut from adequate to outright hammy (Hurt, Devane).
If it’s something of a botch as an adaptation, pic nonetheless could score with undiscriminating audiences looking for outdoorsy, formulaic family fare (one late, nonexplicit lovemaking scene aside). Even if the lyricism is sometimes forced, there’s gorgeous widescreen location lensing and solid additional design contributions down the line.