With a solemnity belied by his last name, sometime-actor-producer-painter-sculptor Andrew Levitas makes a doggedly personal and downbeat directorial debut with “Lullaby,” about a family that gathers for its patriarch’s imminent cancer death. The name cast, including Garrett Hedlund in a charismatic leading turn, may lure viewers, but even in limited release (with a simultaneous bow on VOD), the film faces grim B.O. prospects, given its subject matter.
In a director’s note, the polymath helmer — who has worked across visual arts, acted in various bit parts, and taken producing credits on such films as “The Art of Getting By” and “At Any Price” — says he was inspired by his father’s own prolonged deterioration from terminal illness. Indeed, it seems clear that “Lullaby,” which centers on a musician who returns home to bid his dad farewell after a period of estrangement from the family, is at least somewhat autobiographically inspired.
We first meet Jonathan (Hedlund) on a plane, as two flight attendants threaten him with arrest for smoking in a lavatory. He’s en route to New York, where his wealthy father, Robert (a bedridden Richard Jenkins), plans to take himself off life support. It turns out that Jonathan’s sister, aspiring attorney Karen (a convincingly American Jessica Brown Findlay, from “Downton Abbey”), has filed an injunction to prevent him from doing just that.
Adding to the complications, Robert has given away his fortune, leaving even the children’s mother, Rachel (Anne Archer), with very little. Why, the kids ask? “’Cause I love you both and I raised a couple of spoiled brats,” Robert replies. The emphasis on grand gestures, the nonstop recriminations and the constant discussion of privilege give the film a labored “King Lear” vibe.
Much of the early action, with Jonathan telling off his father, feels awkwardly staged, even tortured, a quality exacerbated by Levitas’ weakness with dialogue: “The heart’s a muscle. It pumps blood. That’s all it does.” “It’s hard to love someone who’s got an expiration date stamped on their forehead.” Still, the film deserves credit for confronting viewers with an uncomfortable subject.
The central question is whether Robert is selfish or brave to want to die after surviving for 12 years with a six-month prognosis. In a contrived finale, this film-long debate culminates with Karen actually delivering an oral argument for why terminating one’s life is inconsistent with America’s founding principles of freedom. (“Lullaby” is vague on where she stands in her career; the 23-year-old character’s presentation doesn’t speak highly of her much-touted education at Yale.)
Although the quartet (accompanied by a police officer) holds a convincingly halting Passover seder in the hospital’s chapel, it’s easy to picture the principal action staged as a more taut and powerful play, with the dying man’s room as the lone set. A subplot involving Jonathan’s ex (Amy Adams) seems to exist less to emphasize his personal growth than to give the movie an excuse to leave the medical center’s grounds, something it rarely, needlessly does. The same goes for the oddly placed flashbacks.
Another thread, in which the jaded Jonathan agrees to take a 17-year-old patient (Jessica Barden) on a faux prom date, pushes “Lullaby” into the realm of a more sentimental weepie, mawkishly if gently taking some of the edge off the film’s serious-minded message about end-of-life care. (Terrence Howard plays Robert’s conscientious physician, mindful of his legal obligations, and Jennifer Hudson a nurse.)
Pic closes on an indulgent yet cathartic note with Hedlund, who also sang in “County Strong” and whose quaver alternately suggests Cat Stevens and Adam Duritz, crooning a ballad in honor of his father called “Fall Apart.” The hospital surroundings — particularly Robert’s artfully darkened room — seem lit for atmosphere rather than realism, though Florian Ballhaus’ Alexa lensing appeared to have lost much of its luster in the Blu-ray projected for press.