For all the men who’ve ever thought about skipping that lap dance and adopting the stripper instead, “Welcome to the Rileys” is for you. For all the lonely housewives who’ve worried their husbands might be cheating on the road, “Welcome to the Rileys” suggests a feel-good alternative. Nothing short of preposterous, Jake Scott’s film imagines a grieving couple (James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo) who play surrogate parents to an underage stripper (“Twilight’s” Kristen Stewart) and spins it for the “Blind Side” crowd. But don’t expect Christians to flock to this Good Samaritan tale in the same way.
With a cast like this, buyers are sure to be interested, although writer Ken Hixon’s story is anything but an easy sell, especially given Scott’s almost tediously self-serious treatment of the material. Considering he’s the scion of Ridley Scott (and nephew to ADD artiste Tony Scott), the helmer makes the unexpected decision of drawing out his narrative. The sluggish pace serves to spotlight poignant scenes, but mostly feels as if the Rileys’ family tragedy has left their 30-year marriage in a state of suspended animation.
During a depressive funk, Indiana plumbing supply salesman Doug (Gandolfini) leaves housebound wife Lois (Leo) behind and stumbles into a New Orleans strip bar. There, he meets a 16-year-old pole dancer, Mallory (Stewart), who looks just enough like their dead daughter to unleash his paternal instincts. Where the “Twilight” movies try to hide Stewart’s pimples, here, those natural imperfections (plus a few bruises and suicide-attempt scars painted in for good measure) suit the character just fine. Hiding behind raccoon-eye mascara and electrical-tape pasties, Stewart is the perfect wretch, utterly convincing as a lost girl leveraging her sexuality to compensate for her complete powerlessness.
Doug and Mallory’s first meeting goes awkwardly, but this being the movies, they cross paths again later that night at a local diner. Before long, the big bear of a man (as gentle as Tony Soprano was dangerous) proposes paying Mallory $100 a day to stay in her filthy apartment, fending off her sexual advances and fining the foul-mouthed teen every time she uses the F-word.
From “Taxi Driver” to “Hardcore,” the notion of introducing chivalry to the seedy world of sex workers is nothing new, though such stories tend to be more exciting when a suitable villain (say, a drug dealer or pimp) arises to thwart the well-meaning outsider. “Rileys” sees itself as being above such cliches, though it defaults into an equally unoriginal series of more “realistic” tropes, such as the less-than-happy ending.
The title, ironic at first (seen nailed to the garage of the Rileys’ joyless home), becomes clear about halfway through, after shellshocked Lois drives herself all the way down to retrieve her husband. With the Rileys back together, they both turn their attention to Mallory, and though such an arrangement can’t possibly last, it provides something of a substitute for their wounded family.
The initial Riley reunion demonstrates the near-miss nature of Scott’s direction, where understated music, lensing and editing fail to convey the emotion from screen to audience. Though perfs are universally strong, both Gandolfini and Leo seem like odd casting choices, forcing an awkward Southern accent from the former and swapping Leo’s all-weather toughness for something more fragile. Such obstacles aside, the pair are downright dynamite in the pic’s more confrontational scenes, as well as quiet moments, such as Gandolfini sobbing alone in his garage, or Leo enjoying her first night in years under the stars.