At a key turning point in Gabriele Muccino’s “Fathers and Daughters,” Russell Crowe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist is sent into a severe tailspin by insensitively harsh reviews for the work he regards as his personal magnum opus, the unpromisingly titled “Bitter Tulips.” One wonders if Italian helmer Muccino is tacitly chiding his own critics in the wake of such English-lingo misfires as “Seven Pounds,” but either way, this waxen slab of glossily packaged soap is unlikely to get them — or mass audiences — back on his side. Though its tale of intergenerational psychological crises alternates between parallel, mutually predictable plotlines, set in 1989 and 2014, respectively, the film itself appears to have sprung principally from the former era: In its shape and sheen, “Fathers and Daughters” seems dated even before Michael Bolton surfaces to cough up a gelatinous closing-credits ballad.
Already released in multiple Euro and Asian territories, “Fathers and Daughters” is still seeking a U.S. distributor. That may seem surprising given the film’s handsome cast of name performers — many of them patently overqualified for their marginal roles — and Muccino’s previous commercial success with a comparably sentimental parent-child melodrama, 2006’s $163 million-grossing “The Pursuit of Happyness.” But if it goes without saying that Crowe hasn’t the latter-day pulling power of Will Smith, tyro scribe Brad Desch’s Black List-approved screenplay hasn’t even the superficial real-world connection that brought “Happyness” to viewers’ hearts. Desch’s heavily stuffed roulade of creative, familial and romantic conflicts might well have been better conceived as a primetime network series in the uncool-but-compulsive “Brothers and Sisters” vein, where its sticky subplots — not to mention its classy ensemble — would have enjoyed considerably more breathing room.
On any size screen, however, the pic’s tinny contrivances (and likewise canned dialogue) will echo sharply, as will a streak of sexism in its moralizing that sits most awkwardly in a film presumably targeting femme auds. “Men can survive without love, but not us women,” is a summarizing platitude in the script; which gender is being backhandedly complimented here remains one of the film’s few ambiguities. In any event, both father and daughter are made to survive with a lesser degree of love from the outset, as an infidelity-related marital squabble between Brooklyn-based writer Jake Davis (Crowe) and his wife causes a car accident that leaves her dead and Jake reeling from the impact of a critical head injury that causes repeated seizures and psychotic breaks.
Fearful of his ability to care for his cherubic 5-year-old daughter, Katie (Kylie Rogers, an expressive young pro), Jake checks himself into a mental health facility for seven months, leaving Katie in the gilded care of her wealthy, Westchester-based aunt Elizabeth (Diane Kruger) and her husband, William (Bruce Greenwood). It proves a troublesome separation, however; upon his return, he discovers that Elizabeth and William, the former still smarting over her sister’s death, are keen to adopt their niece, and willing to wage an ugly legal war for the privilege.
Twenty-five years later, Katie (now played by Amanda Seyfried) has grown into a smart trainee psychologist and social worker — specializing, in an oh-so-subtle detail, in orphaned children — whose personal life is nonetheless blighted by a casual sex habit. Somehow blind, despite her ample academic qualifications, to the Movie Psych 101 daddy issues that the script helpfully outlines for us, she finds potential emotional stability in Cameron (Aaron Paul), a sensitive aspiring novelist whose greatest inspiration is — as luck would dubiously have it — Katie’s own father.
This replacement therapy isn’t as icky, however, as the film’s peculiarly simplistic demonization of her active sexuality, which predates even 1989 by several decades: “There’s nothing in here, it’s empty,” she self-analyzes to her own shrink (Janet McTeer, barely present). Finding some warmth, at least, in Katie’s hollow wooden heart is Lucy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a sorely neglected, voluntarily mute child whose case she takes on in what is one of the film’s more welcome digressions — if only because Wallis, with a single steel-cut glare, practically pulls the screen away from a rather wan Seyfried.
Editor Alex Rodriguez maintains a smooth, rhythmically coordinated balance between the dual tracks of this narrative, though neither goes anywhere especially surprising or emotionally complicated; the notional mystery inherited from the past by the present-day strand is barely shrouded from the beginning. Whether with regard to major plot points like the custody battle, or passing conversational conflicts, Muccino and Desch often opt out of boiling-point drama, cutting scenes and entire arcs short with the path of least resistance.
This comfy, comforting storytelling approach particularly inhibits Crowe, whose reliably rumpled aura of decency reps the film’s most untested asset. Only Kruger — striding brittly through caramel interiors, aggressively swilling whisky from crystal tumblers and wearing the living hell out of a cinched plum jumpsuit — seems to know precisely what film, or at least what season of “Dynasty,” she’s supposed to be in. Other illustrious co-stars are merely thrown away on characters inscribed more by their screen presence than the writing itself: Jane Fonda as Jake’s brusquely affectionate editor, or Octavia Spencer as Katie’s kindly but jaded superior. One presumes they were attractively compensated for their time.
Indeed, nothing and no one in the film looks under-budgeted. So buttery in hue and finish is Shane Hurlbut’s widescreen lensing, and so syrupy Paolo Buonvino’s lavishly applied score, that one could be forgiven for exiting “Fathers and Daughters” with a distinct hankering for pancakes. At times, Muccino seems only a further lick of varnish away from realizing his pic’s florid camp potential. However, as with its hero’s books — a feast for fans of bad movie literature, boasting such tremulously read lines as, “Yes, the tulips are beautiful … for now” — the line between ersatz and genuine kitsch is hard to draw.