Just as a laugh is generally bigger the longer its setup, so tears require even more preparation to be properly jerked — which is to say, we can’t be expected to weep for, or with, fictive folks we’ve hardly met. Yet that’s exactly what “Nostalgia” insists upon: This well-meaning dirge of grief introduces audiences to a succession of characters already on the verge of tears, swiftly pushes them over that brink, then keeps them there for the duration.
An interesting if not particularly dramatic concept, dwelling on the importance of physical keepsakes in our lives, results in a heavy-handed piece that requires histrionic heavy lifting from the likes of Ellen Burstyn, Catherine Keener and Jon Hamm. Their efforts aren’t fully rewarded by this simultaneously pretentious and too-literal-minded endeavor, on which Alex Ross Perry’s uncharacteristic screenplay seems to expend all the sentimentality his previous work avoided. Though lent a degree of executional grace by helmer Mark Pellington, “Nostalgia” nonetheless emerges an inorganic experiment that might’ve seemed more at home developed for the stage or as a novella.
The script’s daisy chain of mournful individuals begins with an uncomfortable interaction between curmudgeonly, retired widower Ronald (Bruce Dern) and Daniel (John Ortiz), an insurance assessor inspecting the former’s cluttered pack-rat abode with an eye toward guessing the estate’s potential value. Daniel then relays his report to Ronald’s peevish, pregnant granddaughter Bethany (Amber Tamblyn), who’d requested it in the first place, and who frankly seems as much contributor to grandpa’s stubborn resentment as its target.
Then Daniel is off to another job: Visiting the site where the home that widowed Helen (Burstyn) has lived for 30 years has just burned to the ground. She’s inconsolable at having lost nearly every physical reminder of her late husband, and prickly with the well-intentioned son (Nick Offerman) who wants her to transition into an assisted-living situation that would preserve her independence while providing external services appropriate to her age. She takes this the wrong way, running off to Las Vegas with a few salvaged valuables to consult high-end collectibles dealer Will (Hamm). He informs her that a baseball her spouse treasured (it’s autographed by Ted Williams) is indeed worth enough to provide her some immediate financial leverage.
We follow divorced Will as he returns to the gated-mansion he grew up in, which his parents have abandoned for a Florida condo. It falls to him and older sibling Donna (Keener) to go through what remains there before the property is sold. As a memorabilia professional, he views nearly everything here as worthless “trash,” while she’s much more reluctant to fill the dumpster. A viewpoint that’s cooler than either is offered by her college-bound daughter (Annalise Basso), who sees little point to cumbersome material possessions when nearly any memory can be stored online. However, an unexpected tragedy suddenly reminds all that there are far worse things to lose than mere objects.
As heartfelt as the movie is — the project had its genesis in a New York Times feature about the mental health value of nostalgia that Pellington read after his wife and mother passed away — the film nonetheless feels pseudo-poetically forced from the start. Its characters tend to speak in windy, high-flown monologues (the estimable James Le Gros turns up to deliver one about the fragility of a life’s evidence in our digital age), when not staring meaningfully into space.
But most of all, they weep. While it would be unfair to call this feature a two-hour compilation of crying scenes, it comes awfully close to being just that. There’s no disputing the sincerity of intent, yet there’s also only so much emotion that can communicate itself effectively to an audience when one note is hit over and over again, with little backstory or tonal variation to heighten that note’s impact. Most of the performers here are amply equipped to shoulder the weight of tragedy. Still, their talents would have been better served by a scenario that provided more fully rounded characters while demanding fewer swan-dives straight into a bottomless pool of woe.
Considering the material’s verbose, somewhat static nature, Matt Sakatani Roe manages considerable visual fluidity in an impressive feature debut as DP, abetted by Arndt-Wulf Peemoller’s deft editing. Other tech/design contributions are handsome, even if “Nostalgia” is one of those films that irks a bit in seeming to assume that nearly everyone lives in upper-middle-class environs. Laurent Eyquem’s piano-based original score manages to avoid bathos while underlining the gamut of tearful moods.