The story of three women who embark on a European train-ride tour in honor of their dearly departed friend, “Off the Rails” is inevitably colored by the 2020 death of Kelly Preston, who delivers her final screen performance as a member of this sorrowful trio. Such sentimental circumstances, however, can’t overshadow the creakiness of Jules Williamson’s film, which despite its title chooses to stick to a well-worn narrative track. Laughs, tears, healing and incessant Blondie songs are all part of its rickety package, none of which is likely to help it make inroads with audiences when it debuts in theaters and on VOD on Dec. 10.
A high tolerance for corniness and the sound of Debbie Harry’s voice are prerequisites for “Off the Rails,” whose tale swiftly reunites lonely Kate (Jenny Seagrove), motherly Liz (Sally Phillips) and discontent actress Cassie (Preston) for the funeral of their fourth musketeer, Anna. Following a service at which Anna’s mother (a cameoing Judi Dench) speaks, the threesome are given their friend’s parting wish: Along with Anna’s teenage daughter Maddie (newcomer Elizabeth Dormer-Phillips), they’re to retrace their old European-odyssey steps on the way to the cathedral in Palma, Italy, where once a year light shines through a stained glass window in a phenomenon known as “God’s Disco Ball.”
Thus begins a Eurail journey during which Kate, Liz, Cassie and Maddie celebrate life, love and friendship at the same time that they struggle with (and gripe about) old age, terrible mistakes, lingering regrets and long-simmering conflicts, the most notable being the friction between Kate and Cassie thanks to the former’s long-ago decision to sleep with the latter’s husband. Per feel-good dramedy dictates, every stop in France, Spain and Italy begets a wacky misadventure, be it drunken drag-bar karaoke, a broken hand, a scary plane ride, a stolen boat, lost passports and money, romantic run-ins with cute men (for Maddie, a hunky Italian; for Cassie, Franco Nero’s local mayor) or the impromptu delivery of a stranger’s baby. So formulaic are these wannabe-wild incidents that it almost feels like a computer program was fed plot points from similar prior movies, and spit this one out.
Jordan Waller’s script saddles each protagonist with an issue to grapple with (and overcome), from Cassie’s concerns about a custody battle with her ex, to Liz’s marital woes, to Kate’s lovelorn unhappiness. Despite much chit-chat about their heyday, however, there’s no real sense of how American Cassie and British Liz, Kate and Anna ever became BFFs, nor why this particular vacation is so vitally important to their shared bond. The characters’ dynamic feels hollow at its core, and that’s exacerbated by the clichéd scenarios in which the women routinely find themselves. Temporarily recapturing one’s youthful spirit while simultaneously accepting and embracing middle age has rarely felt this staid.
By the soundtrack’s umpteenth Blondie song (some of which are repeated), “Off the Rails” has run aground, undone by hackneyed schmaltz. That’s no fault of the cast, who do their best to bestow their two-dimensional roles with personality — especially Preston, whose vibrant presence certainly turns these proceedings rather melancholy, especially given their focus on life’s transience and the consequent need to cherish every moment. There’s something poetically apt about Preston’s swan song being a film about saying goodbye while nonetheless also reconnecting with loved ones and the past, but that’s not enough to make this wobbly affair a jaunt worth taking.