By turns poignant and plodding, affecting and affected, “Ithaca” is the sort of frustrating movie that’s just good enough to make you wish it were a lot better. First-time feature director Meg Ryan — yes, that Meg Ryan — and screenwriter Eric Jendresen have reconstituted William Saroyan’s 1943 novel “The Human Comedy” as a wildly uneven period piece that, despite several dramatically potent episodes, never really develops a sense of narrative momentum.
Indeed, there is a point scarcely 20 minutes into the film where it easily could have ended, and come off as a reasonably satisfying short. Equally problematic: Actors are burdened with too many lines that sound more like declarations than dialogue — and not just during the intrusive stretches of voiceover narration — while tragedies are foreshadowed so heavy-handedly that two obviously doomed characters might as well have vultures perched on their shoulders right from the get-go.
And yet, despite its predictability and other conspicuous flaws, “Ithaca” is surprisingly successful in fits and starts when it comes to sustaining interest and empathy, thanks partly to Ryan’s ability to subtly yet vividly evoke particulars of time and place on an indie-movie budget, and largely because of some compelling performances in lead and secondary roles.
The setting is Ithaca — Saroyan’s fictional version of his real-life home town of Fresno, Calif. — during the early days of U.S. involvement in World War II. (The movie was shot on various Virginia locations.) When his older brother (Jack Quaid, son of Ryan and ex-husband Dennis Quaid) joins the military, 14-year-old Homer Macauley (newcomer Alex Neustaedter) assumes his sibling’s role as man of the house for a family that includes his widowed mother (Ryan), his sister Bess (Christian Nelson), and his younger brother Ulysses (Spencer Howell).
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As “Ithaca” begins, Homer lands a job delivering telegrams for the local branch of Postal Telegraph, where he quickly impresses easygoing manager Tom Spangler (Hamish Linklater) and amiably boozy telegrapher Willie Grogan (Sam Shepard). Unfortunately, the job requires Homer to occasionally deliver messages announcing the deaths of soldiers to their next of kin. When he tells his mom about this grim task, she responds with a loving warning: “You’re becoming aware of a world in which you’ve been a child.”
In the margins of the coming-of-age storyline, there are other reminders and reflections of the far-off war: A bartender bitterly complains that “the war to end all wars” — his war, World War I — didn’t live up to its billing. Three soldiers shyly invite two local girls (one of them Homer’s sister) to join them for a night at the movies — the night before they ship out. Meanwhile, Marcus, Homer’s older brother, bonds with a fellow soldier, an orphan named Tobey (Gabriel Basso), by regaling him with affectionate tales of his family back home.
“Ithaca” unfolds at a steady pace that, truth to tell, makes the movie seem longer than it is. Worse, screen time is not fairly apportioned — some interesting characters aren’t around nearly often enough, while others either overstay their welcome, or aren’t welcome at all. Chief among the latter: Homer’s dead father, who periodically appears as a fond memory, or maybe a ghost, to Homer’s mom. It doesn’t help at all that this apparition is played, almost entirely without dialogue, by Tom Hanks, whose stunt casting distractingly recalls his more entertaining screen pairings with Ryan in “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle.”
On the other hand, Sam Shepard is so wonderfully engaging as the crusty Willie Grogan, an avuncular alcoholic who spouts wisdom while sporting Harold Lloyd-type glasses, you can’t help thinking that, in almost any other context, his performance might generate award-season consideration. Ryan doesn’t give herself much to do as Homer’s mother, but she does encourage a credible and creditable performance from Neustaedter, who brings depth of feeling and welcome touches of humor to his portrayal of a character who might have come off as just your standard-issue sensitive adolescent. Linklater slyly suggests the effortless charm of a young James Stewart — think George Bailey during the happier scenes in “It’s a Wonderful Life” — while young Howell is a charming scene stealer even W.C. Fields might have loved.
John Mellencamp’s folky, period-appropriate musical score is effective and evocative throughout “Ithaca,” but especially during the final scene, a dead-solid perfect coda that, not unlike the quietly powerful ending of Peter Fonda’s “The Hired Hand,” suggests an outsider can find redemption by filling the void left by a fallen friend. It’s a profoundly mixed blessing, but a blessing nonetheless.