Hospital-room singalongs to the Indigo Girls, yellow cab rides from Manhattan to the Midwest, careers in canine couture — all inexplicable in any context but that of the Sundance family dramedy, where such eccentricities aren’t just expected but positively mandatory. A blandly diverting exercise in quirk-by-numbers, John Krasinki’s “The Hollars” peppily charts the further unraveling of an already dysfunctional clan when its guiding matriarch is faced with a life-threatening brain tumor. Yet while its brand of laughter-through-the-tears humanism is utterly familiar, that’s not to say it bears even a glancing resemblance to real life: The emotional responses elicited here go about as deep as the “awwws” and “ahhhs” of a live studio audience at a network sitcom taping. Still, sitcoms have their place, and so does “The Hollars”; with its comfy cast of pros playing amiably to type, it should amble easily enough down ancillary avenues.
“The Hollars” marks Krasinski’s second directorial effort, unspooling in Park City seven years after the actor’s more sourly comic David Foster Wallace adaptation, “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men,” which took the ruling male psyche nastily to task, but often tripped over its own attempted tonal severity. Though it’s more even-keeled and sunnily commercial than that curio, Krasinski’s follow-up isn’t half as arresting or ambitious; a case of swings and roundabouts, then, though it’s hard not to wish the helmer-star had followed his own film’s various cozy directives of fearlessness and moment-seizing. Not that those were written by Krasinski, who has relinquished writing duties for his sophomore feature, working from a notionally original screenplay by Jim Strouse (“People Places Things,” “Grace Is Gone”).
Press notes claim Krasinski was attached to Strouse’s script as an actor before ascending to the directors’ chair, and it’s in the former capacity that he seems more limber. As John Hollar, a creatively blocked comic-book artist living in the Big Apple, his handsome hangdog mien and rangy, slapstick-ready physicality warmly anchor proceedings even when the comedy is stretched thin. He has twinkly, immediately perceptible chemistry with his onscreen mom Margo Martindale, who brings her endlessly renewable reserves of big-hearted battle-ax wisdom to the part of small-town homemaker Sally — when actors’ established star personae are this comfortably aligned, it’s that much easier to buy them as kin.
The bitty plot is set in motion in the very first scene, as Sally is felled by a blindsiding seizure during her morning beauty routine — at 88 minutes, the pic is nothing if not brisk in its movements. No-nonsense Dr. Fong (Randall Park) also wastes little time in dishing out the bad news: Sally has an advanced brain tumor of over a decade’s standing, and requires swift, high-risk surgery. She takes the diagnosis in her typically stalwart stride. More openly devastated are her husband Don (Richard Jenkins, doing his best Richard Jenkins), whose mild manner conceals profound desperation over the dire financial state of his plumbing business, and ne’er-do-well son Ron (Sharlto Copley, in the film’s one counterintuitive casting move), a jobless, divorce-burned hothead reduced to living in his parents’ basement.
Bundled onto a plane by his heavily pregnant, tirelessly thoughtful girlfriend Becca (a sorely underused Anna Kendrick), John heads back home to keep his stricken family in some semblance of order. The location of said home is anyone’s guess; though the film was shot in Mississippi, neither the writing nor the production design offer a scrap of regional color. That lack of specificity extends to the film’s spidering array of secondary plot threads, few of which evoke much personal history beyond the confines of the script. Ron pines for the nuclear family life he shared with his ex-wife Stacy (Ashley Dyke) and their adorable two daughters, but there’s scarcely a line of dialogue to convince us they ever were married.
While he’s more collected than his manchild of an older brother, John wrestles with the kind of standard-issue Insecurities Over Impending Fatherhood that are all too easily treated by an awkward encounter with randy ex-girlfriend Gwen. (She’s played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, sadly duking it out with Mary Kay Place — given a throwaway scene as Don’s loyal sister — for the title of least valued player.) Even John’s artistic vocation is a barely-scrutinized script detail — a notably missed opportunity in a beigely mounted film that could certainly use some visual pop. At least it’s of a piece with the similarly neutral aural wallpaper of the film’s soundtrack, which goes predictably heavy on acoustic guitar ballads by singer-songwriter Josh Ritter: Uniformly pretty as they are, they lend the film little differentiation in feeling from one scene to the next.
Not that you’ll need any such cues to tell precisely where the film is headed as it gears up for a teary finale that, thanks to the actors’ precise hitting of their emotional marks, may leave viewers a little moist-cheeked in spite of themselves. By the time Kendrick’s hefty-bellied Becca turns up on the scene, just in time for Sally to head into the uncertainty of the operating room, viewers could be forgiven for expecting Elton John’s “The Circle of Life” — or, at least, a tasteful acoustic cover thereof — to soar in the background. The outcome entails a few more kinks than that, but Krasinki’s film remains resolutely resistant to surprise in style or story terms. “You won’t know until you get there that you’re okay,” Sally sagely encounters her elder son in a particularly fuzzy-hearted exchange. “The Hollars,” however, is assured okay — if little more — from the very beginning.