There are worse things one could do than indulge in a cozy little romance these days, when we are all cooped up at home craving some meaningful human contact. If only writer-director Vicky Wight’s on-demand drama “The Lost Husband” could have filled that void by audaciously embracing some of the more syrupy, maybe even steamy elements of an often unfairly slighted genre.
Instead, Wight delivers a sedated Hallmark-y effort that just hints at heightened emotions — the very kind of rush underserved romance viewers come to this fare seeking — only to repeatedly interrupt and abandon them in puzzling ways. Equally confusing is that deceptive title. Suffice it to say that Wight’s predictable fish-out-of-water tale, adapted from bestselling author Katherine Center’s 2013 novel of the same name, isn’t about a husband at all, but the widowed wife he leaves behind in his wake.
She is Libby Moran (Leslie Bibb), a good-natured mother of two who seems no less lost than her recently deceased husband Danny (Kevin Alejandro) we only get to meet during a pair of by-the-book flashbacks. (In the most cringe-inducing one, Libby can be heard foreshadowing a tragedy with, “Something bad is going to happen!”) When we meet Libby in the opening moments of the film, something bad has already happened, forcing the young woman and her kids to live with Libby’s self-centered mother Marsha (Sharon Lawrence). Fed up with her egotistical parent’s hardened indifference, Libby walks out on her, heading to her long estranged aunt Jean’s (Nora Dunn) Texan goat farm to make a new start.
Leading a fulfilling and calm country life with strenuous demands the suburban Libby is unfamiliar with, the no-nonsense Jean takes Libby under her protective wing at once, guiding her until-then convenience-minded niece with an uncompromising sense of discipline. In her farm, everyone, including animals, has an essential job to do, she regularly stresses. And before Libby gets to fashion herself with quaint braids and change into farm-appropriate denim overalls and cowboy boots, she meets Josh Duhamel’s blunt, handsomely rugged farm manager James, who supervises the workflow and quickly dismisses Libby’s aspirations to open a “hipster cheese shop” with the dairy the farm produces.
If you’re rubbing your eager palms together in anticipation, allow me to confirm that however underdeveloped, a love affair does spark between Libby and James. The pair skip over a meet-cute, but the material still delivers some genre charms via other means, especially when the duo accidentally finds itself locked in a cooler room for hours, bantering and getting to know each other as a result. What’s frustrating is, Wight does very little with that setup, deserting the two and their undercooked chemistry for long stretches of time to look for juicy twists in different avenues. But those regrettable departures don’t exactly land.
The script spends a considerable amount of time with, but then unfortunately misjudges a severe incident of school bullying involving Libby’s young daughter — no school administrator would be that apathetic toward a new student who’s been harassed due to her limp. Elsewhere, a long-buried family secret finally gets revealed, earning not much more than a shrug from the audience who’d rather witness the next move between the lovers-to-be. Meanwhile, a pair of paper-thin supporting characters get shamelessly sidelined — the committed Herizen Guardiola’s bubbly townie Sunshine serves no purpose other than help Libby realize hers. Playing Sunshine’s father, Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s welcome presence goes to waste, with his character merely reduced to comic relief.
Lit by cinematographer Aaron Kovalchik’s palatably sun-dappled but daytime-TV-esque aesthetic, “The Lost Husband” is at its most agreeable when it invests in Libby’s adjustment process in familiar but endearing montages. In one scene, she learns the rewarding mysteries of cheese-making; in another, the finally savvy worker finds herself singing to goats. But those brief grace notes get shortchanged by other miscalculated steps. Wight’s sets seldom manage to rise above a certain distracting superficiality — Jean’s supposedly well-worn country kitchen, where we spend a decent chunk of time, looks like it’s recently been outfitted through a shopping spree at Williams-Sonoma, with brand-new pots and pans that have never met a burner before. And it’s not just the production design that doesn’t feel lived in. Rushing through an emotional journey with an uneven pace and clumsy dialogue, “The Lost Husband” aims for familiar sentiments around loyalty, family and sacrifice, but bypasses sincerity, the most crucial ingredient.