Early in “Made in Italy,” a cringingly syrupy tale of overdue bonding between an estranged father and his only offspring, someone describes Liam Neeson’s character as “a selfish prick.” Thus we learn, even before Neeson has made his entrance, that the Irish star will be playing the polar opposite of the all-caring and ultra-capable dad of his hit “Taken” franchise. Then again, no one would mistake firsttime writer-director James D’Arcy’s cliché-filled family melodrama as an extension of Neeson’s late-career reinvention as a badass action hero.
“Made in Italy” marks a return to earlier, mellower roles for Neeson, who plays Robert, a former toast-of-the-town, now-struggling London artist leading a carefree lifestyle. The actor makes his entrance looking unkempt, in urgent need of a shower and trim, barely able to remember his one-night-stand’s name. Was it Jennifer or Jessica? D’Arcy’s script offers a generic backstory as to why the reclusive Robert is the way he is, the details of which will be tritely parceled out against the picturesque Italian countryside, somewhere under the golden Tuscan sun.
The film’s setup is fairly simple: Overseeing a thriving urban art gallery, Robert’s son Jack (Neeson’s real-life son Micheál Richardson) is at the end of his troubled marriage. But divorce comes with hefty financial burdens. Having to buy the gallery from his business partner and soon-to-be ex-wife in order to maintain his successful career, Jack knocks on his egotistical dad’s door for monetary support. So the two hit the road to Italy, hoping to score a quick sale of the storybook villa they’ve inherited from Jack’s late mother — a sacred place filled with happy memories for Robert.
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Except, between smashed windows, an overgrown terrace and broken fixtures — plus a horrendous Pollock rip-off painting Robert had etched on a wall back in the day and refuses to paint over — the deeply neglected house is hardly the idyllic place it once was. How could the duo possibly find a qualified buyer and close a deal within their unforgiving deadline when they can’t even coexist peacefully or figure out how to outsmart a wild weasel locked in one of the rooms?
If only “Made in Italy” had taken an HGTV-style turn at this point and become an enjoyable house-renovation exercise with a rewarding before and after. No such luck, save perhaps for a brief yet charming montage of mild restorative work around the estate. Instead, we get the stiff-upper-lipped real-estate expat Kate (Lindsay Duncan), who occasionally drops by and disapprovingly circles the Tuscan property that comes with a splendid emerald backdrop, the glory of which is capably captured by cinematographer Mike Eley. Also in the jumble is a convenient romantic interest for Jack named Natalia (Valeria Bilello), a local restaurateur caught in a tricky marriage pickle herself.
“Made in Italy” sidelines these intriguing female characters, fashioning them with stock motives amid sun-dappled vibes reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Provence-set “A Good Year.” Natalia doesn’t add up to much more than a glorified manic pixie dream girl (not unlike Marion Cotillard in the aforesaid title), whereas Kate gets dealt the commonplace “strong woman” card. In their defense, the film doesn’t do much more for its main male characters, wasting away the story’s oblique yet emotional real-life echoes. It’s puzzling that the on-screen pair’s tearful confrontations around grief and locked-away memories don’t land all that plausibly, considering what both Neeson and Richardson must have felt following wife/mother Natasha Richardson’s tragic death in 2009.
Part of the problem here is unfortunately Micheál Richardson’s miscasting. Just 25 years old and still quite boyish, he could play the lead in a coming-of-age movie, but seems too young to play a thirtysomething art connoisseur already on the verge of divorce. Most of the other shortcomings are script-related. Transitioning to writer-director duties after years of acting, D’Arcy takes a rigid, overly pedestrian approach to such a familiar story, hitting only the most predictable notes. In that, this inoffensive yet undercooked melodrama makes for a weak feast, haphazardly whipped up by someone unaware of the real thing’s simple yet enduring appeal. You get a plate of egg noodles and ketchup rather than the rich spaghetti marinara you thought you’d ordered.