Family can be a blessing but, at times, it can also be a bane. This is an idea that forms the central theme for John Krasinski’s The Hollars, an impressive sophomore feature from a director in which he wisely surrounds himself with some of the funniest and strongest actors possible.
Krasinski plays John Hollar, a New York graphic novelist whose well-to-do girlfriend Rebecca (Anna Kendrick) is pregnant, although he’s isn’t quite ready to commit to marrying her just yet. When John learns his mother Sally (Margo Martindale) has been taken to the hospital and diagnosed with a brain tumor, he returns home to deal with the family issues from which he thought he had escaped.
A few years back, John Krasinski tackled David Foster Wallace’s dark drama Brief Interviews with Hideous Men as his feature film directorial debut. With The Hollars, he takes a screenplay by another Sundance veteran, James Strouse (Grace is Gone), and makes it his own with a sense of lightness and humor that feels more apropos for The Office star.
Krasinski’s new movie opens with a scene between Richard Jenkins and Sharlto Copley as John’s father and brother, respectively. The latter needs to find someplace to urinate with all the bathrooms in the house being occupied. It’s an opening that immediately sets up the tone for the rest of the movie with a quick laugh before switching gears when Jenkins finds his wife Sally lying on the floor of the bathroom.
When John’s called home by his father, he learns the family business is failing, while his older brother Ron (Copley) can’t seem to get over his divorce. Neither of them can deal with not having Sally at 100 percent. John also has his own problems when he learns his high school sweetheart Gwen (Mary Elisabeth Winstead) still has a thing for him, even though she’s now married to his mother’s nurse Jason (Charlie Day).
Obviously, there’s a lot going on in this movie that epitomizes the type of “dramedy” that normally plays well with Sundance audiences. Krasinski himself isn’t an actor with very much range, but surrounding himself with ringers like Day—who is funny no matter what he says or does—and casting Jenkins and Martindale as his parents, goes a long way in creating a believable family unit that keeps you invested.
Some of the best scenes in the movie are the ones between Krasinski and Martindale, the two of them having such a warm mother-son relationship that you’re likely to call your own mother after watching them together. Martindale offers a great deal of depth as a woman so used to caring for others that she has difficult focusing on her own medical struggles.
Krasinski’s odder casting choice, which ends up working surprisingly well, is that of Copley as his man-child brother Ron, who just can’t get his crap together. We’re so used to seeing Copley playing crazier over-the-top roles that when he plays a real person, it’s actually quite refreshing. His character has two young daughters in the film, and Copley’s scenes as a loving father may force you to reconsider his own abilities as an actor.
On the other hand, I didn’t care much for Anna Kendrick’s girlfriend role or her performance, which is just a little too grating to earn much sympathy for her situation. We learn John is hesitant to marry Rebecca, because she comes from wealth, unlike him. When she thinks he might be cheating on her with Gwen, she takes a cab all the way from New York to the suburban area where this takes place (presumably Ohio), which seems like such a ludicrous thing for anyone to do, regardless of their opulence.
A far more minor issue is the subplot involving Charlie Day’s Jason, a nurse threatened by John’s presence due to the history John has with Gwen. It leads to some funny moments between them, but then that subplot never really goes anywhere. There’s a funny scene where Winstead, in essentially a cameo as Gwen, makes a pass at John while Charlie’s in the other room. But then nothing really happens after that since it’s a plot device used solely to bring Kendrick’s character into the mix. After that, the movie shifts back to the problems within John’s family, and rightfully so.
It’s a testament to Krasinski’s ability to shift tones, sometimes quite rapidly, that makes The Hollars feel like a worthwhile endeavor, and possibly better than if Strouse directed the movie himself. He’s helped greatly by a song-heavy score from recording artist Josh Ritter, which goes a long way to add emotional weight to the movie’s sadder scenes— vignettes that are in some ways even more competent than the jokes.
Although not particularly groundbreaking, even compared to normal Sundance fare, The Hollars is a pleasant enough experience in which you should easily be able to find someone or something to relate to in it.
The Hollars opens in New York and LA on Friday, Aug. 26.