“Furlough” looks, sounds and plays like a comedy — albeit without the actual jokes. The story of an African-American corrections officer tasked with taking a Caucasian inmate on a trip to see her dying mother, Laurie Collyer’s film assumes the racially-mismatched-buddy form of “48 Hrs.” and the contentious central dynamic of “Midnight Run,” except that its first draft-grade script lacks the absurdity necessary to elicit laughs, or the depth that might make it moving. Caught between its competing urges, it merely squanders its accomplished leads Tessa Thompson and Melissa Leo in a listless purgatory.
Uptight Nicole (Thompson) lives at home with, and cares for, her mom (Whoopi Goldberg), all while working at an upstate New York prison for women where she covets a full-time job. She’s promised that position by her warden (Erik Griffin) if she agrees to babysit Joan (Leo) on a 36-hour excursion to visit her ailing mother, so away the duo go, with Joan — sporting a head full of cornrows, a thick New Yawk accent, and a smile a mile wide — thrilled to enjoy a breath of fresh air after having been locked up for eight years on an armed robbery charge. Moreover, with only six months to go until she achieves true freedom, Joan is initially willing to comply with Nicole’s orders, including walking about in public with cuffed wrists and ankles.
The pair’s public-transit journey is interrupted by a train delay in Manhattan, at which point Joan convinces Nicole to stop in for a bite at a local restaurant, and then to make a pit stop at a local salon so she can get a hairstyle that’ll better please her mother. Nicole reluctantly goes along with these requests, as well as Joan’s subsequent plea that they stop in at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that just so happens to be taking place at the church they pass by. Jeff Cardoni’s jaunty score underscores that these incidents are meant to be funny, as do the actress’ exaggerated odd-couple reactions to each other. However, their circumstances are so pedestrian, and their exchanges are so devoid of wittiness, that the material just lays there, seemingly waiting for a punchline to appear.
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“Furlough” momentarily embraces its bawdier instincts when Nicole sneaks away from her AA meeting to join a sex-addict therapy group, where she immediately woos a libidinous veterinarian (a confused-looking Edgar Ramirez). Yet even then, director Collyer keeps a lid on any real outrageousness, such that Joan’s tryst is kept almost completely off-screen, and upon being apprehended by Nicole, she happily allows herself to be re-shackled. That’s in keeping with the film’s generally wan energy, which further nosedives once Nicole makes it to her mom’s bedside, and we’re expected to feel something genuine about a character who, up until this point, has been embodied by Leo as a cartoon character with a mischievous twinkle in her eye — although not mischievous enough to compel her to do something that comes off as truly naughty.
Opposite Leo’s game smirking, the usually magnetic Thompson is reduced to furrowing her brow as the buttoned-up Nicole, who’s destined from the start to learn that she has to create an independent life for herself — and demand some help with her pestering mom from her self-absorbed sister Brandy (La La Anthony) — just as Joan is fated to realize that mother-daughter relationships, no matter how thorny, are important. A late appearance by Anna Paquin can’t salvage the uninvolving sentimental climax, which is staged by director Collyer with the same tepidness and jarring abruptness that typifies most of the film’s milquetoast dramedy.