Sound the quirky-whimsical-uplift alarm, as “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” delivers towering tidal waves of idiosyncratic mush. Maudlin flashbacks, contrived twists, transparent themes and a soppy score all slosh about Bill Purple’s drama, which concerns a grieving widower and a wayward female teenager who overcome their kindred abandonment issues to build a raft out of trash on which the girl plans to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to the Azores islands. Its every gesture phonier than the last, the Tribeca-launched film appears destined for a watery theatrical grave.
Stuffy architect Henry (Jason Sudeikis) has his life upended when, on the eve of completing a big New Orleans waterfront-restoration deal with boss Wendell (Paul Reiser), he’s informed that his pregnant wife Penny (Jessica Biel) — a woman prone to cutie-pie nuttiness like making her husband wear purple sneakers to his important meeting — has perished in a car crash. This sends Henry into a tailspin of sitting around his under-renovation house looking dazed and confused and reminiscing about happy times spent with his colorfully crazy spouse, though Sudeikis’ evocation of grief is strained and mannered, his far-off looks and befuddled demeanor consistently coming across as “acting.”
Things take a turn for the bizarre (albeit hopeful!) when he befriends hair-braided 16-year-old vagrant Millie (“Game of Thrones’” Maisie Williams), who wanders the streets collecting two-by-fours and other assorted junk with her dog “Ahab,” and who’s fond of dispensing creaky maxims and homilies — some via voiceover — in a Nawlins patois that’s the height of unintentional hilarity.
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“Mos’ stories ain’t true, and don’t start where you expek,” Millie declares at the film’s outset. However, between Williams and Biel’s habit of dropping consonants and amplifying their down-south accents, it’s their performances that come off as false — especially as Millie continues to recount tall tales about former oceanic travellers and espouse hoary sea-themed metaphors (much of them passed down from her “Pa”) about the wind and compasses.
If those flourishes weren’t enough to send one’s eyes rolling furiously, Henry convinces Millie to let him collaborate on the trash raft by allowing her to move in with him and continue assembly in his backyard — this after he accidentally burns down her work shed, thus causing her stereotypically abusive alcoholic uncle (Jayson Warner) to throw her out.
Soon, he’s eating marijuana-infused stew, growing a wild-man beard and enlisting the aid of two kooky construction workers, the dimly named Dumbass (Orlando Jones) and the Creole-speaking Pascal (Richard Robichaux), while trying to evade his harping mother-in-law (Mary Steenburgen) and nagging boss — not to mention putting aside the onerous job of finishing Penny’s obituary.
Henry’s avoidance of that task speaks to his sorrow, just as Millie’s mission gives him a chance to finally follow Penny’s advice to “Be Bold.” Yet “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” is only daring in its attempt to utilize every device in the American indie playbook. Millie has a diary of a doomed sailor that’s related to her own paterfamilias’ disappearance, and before long, Henry is acting as her surrogate father figure, just as she functions for him as a stand-in for Penny (both are described by Dumbass as “a hurricane”) as well as the unborn child he lost.
Plentiful bawling and breaking stuff ensues as Henry and Millie develop a bond that — though rooted in emotional need rather than deviant sexual desire — remains more than a bit strange, what with them sharing the sorts of rituals (eating Lucky Charms, watching kung fu movies) that Henry previously enjoyed with Penny. More frustrating still, neither character is remotely plausible, thanks to a script (by Purple and Robbie Pickering) that imagines them as hoary archetypes, and to turns by Sudeikis and Williams comprised of skin-deep verbal and expressive affectations.
Purple’s direction is largely unremarkable, but the soundtrack by Biel’s husband, Justin Timberlake, is a veritable pox upon the proceedings, its soaring arrangements of tender piano and guitar-plucking designed to make sure that not a single moment goes by without underlined musical emphasis. Pseudo-revelatory bombshells and heart-healing epiphanies inevitably arrive by film’s climax, which only reaffirms that — no matter how it’s cleaned up, reconstituted and transformed into something new — garbage is still garbage.