Starring Mickey Rourke as a retired CIA assassin turned improbable mentor to Nat Wolff’s next-door-neighbor misfit, “Ashby” is a genre jumble that makes half-baked use of high-school sports, crime comedy, teen romance and other formulae to mildly diverting ends that are never quite convincing or funny enough. Paramount launched a limited theatrical rollout on Sept. 25, simultaneous with on-demand availability, but Aussie tube scribe Tony McNamara’s U.S. feature will definitely fare best as a viable if innocuous cable/rental time-filler.
Moving from Oregon to some heartland small town (the pic was shot in North Carolina, though no one onscreen sports a regional accent), 17-year-old Ed Wallis (Wolff) is a round peg in a square hole — an early-John-Cusack-type wise-guy newbie in a school environment where having read Hemingway makes you “gay,” and football is the religion of the land. He’s landed here after a divorce that has left mom June (Sarah Silverman) scrambling for any adult male companionship that might shore up her shaky self-esteem, while the dad left behind has abandoned parenting completely, occasional Skype conversations and promised (but inevitably canceled) visits aside.
Ed does find a friend and possibly more in classmate Eloise (Emma Roberts), whose name is just the tip of the iceberg as far as precociousness goes; her lines are so self-consciously clever it’s as if she were conceived as an analytic composite study of “the Quirky Girl in Post-John Hughes High-School Romantic Comedies.” Speaking of papers, Ed is assigned one: “Go talk to an old person,” siphon off accumulated life wisdoms, and write 2,000 words on the aforementioned. Knowing no one in the community, he chooses neighbor Ashby Holt (Rourke), who claims to be a retired napkin salesman but in fact has had a rather more colorful history — as might be guessed by the fact that the’s a man with floppy blue-dyed bangs, a whisky rasp and a thick patina of mystery, living alone in this tree-lined enclave of nuclear-family normalcy. His presence here is rather like that of a unicorn in a chicken coop; he may feign nonchalance, but try as he (and the movie) might, he will never, ever blend in.
Crusty Ashby isn’t really interested in being interviewed, let alone tagged as an “old person.” But he’s just gotten some serious health news, and needs help driving to doctor’s appointments and such, so he reluctantly accepts Ed’s company. It doesn’t take the boy long to figure out (poking around his friend’s house while the man is passed from a dizzy spell) that Ashby isn’t quite what he represents himself to be, given his cabinet-full of high-grade weaponry, or the picture of himself with President Reagan.
Pressed, he admits to having killed some 93 people, presumed enemies of the state in one way or another. Absurdly, Ed’s questions about this prompt Ashby’s apparently first-ever soul searching about his former profession, which in turn leads him all too quickly to the realization that his former bosses (including Michael Lerner) used him to kill at least some people who weren’t at all national security threats, just their own personal enemies or inconveniences. Ergo, he begins hunting down former superiors and exacting some revenge for this abuse of power.
Meanwhile, and even less credibly, Ed tries out for the football team, makes it, immediately gets put in play, and scores the odd touchdown … despite an innate antipathy toward dumb jocks and no evident prior interest in/experience with team athletics. Locker-room scenes in which the coaches (Kevin Dunn, John Enos III) spout exaggerated empty homilies come close to inspired parody of sports-movie cliches. Yet we’re meant to swallow Ed’s on-field triumphs straight-up, rendering this whole aspect just another piece of “Ashby” that doesn’t play well with the others.
It’s equally hard to accept why the grizzled Ashby would waste five minutes on this simultaneously smug, overdramatic and oblivious whelp, particularly since Rourke takes his role fairly seriously, while Wolff is operating more in goofily farcical teen-comedy mode. But then, nothing here feels organic — nor is anything quite eccentric enough to make for an uneven but compelling mess. Instead, McNamara’s second directorial feature (following 2003’s Aussie “The Rage in Placid Lake,” another teenage-misfits-make-good comedy) winds up a poorly mixed bowl of mismatched ingredients that is nonetheless tepidly, forgettably digestible.
Supporting cast is solid, though likewise held back from excelling by tonal inconsistency; some of their characters (like Silverman’s, or a local minister played by Zachary Knighton) are amusingly conceived but not developed to the point of sufficient payoff. Packaging is smoothly pro, though again, more assertive choices in various departments might have helped pic decide what it wants to be when it grows up — certainly ones bolder than the bland instrumentals and lame granola rock songs soundtracked.