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If Italian director Gabriele Muccino has managed to make four American features with major Hollywood stars, he must be doing something right. After his dreary sports rom-com Playing for Keeps, one had to wonder what it was, but Fathers & Daughters puts him back on the family-friendly, melodramatic track. Bringing good old-fashioned Mediterranean emotion to a screenplay that feels oh so familiar, this modern-day weepie unapologetically plays to the crowd rather than the critics. A notable cast featuring Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Aaron Paul, Diane Kruger and Jane Fonda should encourage matinee goers, before bedding down on the small screen.
Strangely, despite a pile-up of searing tragedies and rank injustices, there are fewer tears in store for viewers than in some of his previous work, which should be the sign of a maturing director. At the same time, there’s more dramatic meat to chew on, around the theme of how childhood influences one’s adult life. Amanda Seyfried’s deep-diving portrayal of an emotionally short-circuited young woman springs convincingly from the intercut scenes detailing her relationship with loving dad Russell Crowe when she was eight years old. Pulling out all the stops on flashbacks and flash forwards, Muccino underlines – for those who need it – the connection between youthful traumas and adult dysfunctions. Typical of the director, a strong undercurrent of hope courses through the darkest moments of Brad Desch’s screenplay, leaving room for an easily foreseeable upbeat finale.
The film opens on the car crash that kills Katie’s mother. Dad Jake Davis (Crowe), a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, was driving and got distracted by a heated argument with his wife. He survives the accident with a severe head injury that leaves him subject to violent, epileptic-like seizures, which come on at all the wrong moments. Little Katie, played with joyful maturity by first-timer Kylie Rodgers, seems unscathed in the back seat. But when Dad surrenders to depression and has to check into a mental hospital for seven months, she is left in Westchester with her evil aunt (Kruger at her icy Teutonic best) and uncle, who are filthy rich. (“I make more money than God!” boasts the latter.) They hatch a plan to adopt Katie, on the grounds that Jake is too poor and unstable to take care of her, not to mention the unpardonable fact that his last book bombed.
With this threat hovering in the background, Jake buys Katie her first bike and enrolls her in an expensive school, writing all night to pay the bills. Just as another down-and-out dad, played by Will Smith in Muccino’s The Pursuit of Happyness, struggled to keep cruel reality from his small son, so Jake pretends nothing is wrong while smothering Katie in fatherly love. Crowe is good in the part – lovingly affectionate, bearishly physical, but also a tad witty when he comes out of his self-imposed isolation and takes a swipe at stiff-backed lawyers, educators and his brother-in-law. His warm relationship to his publisher, played to a T by a relaxed Jane Fonda, is the only positive one outside of his daughter.
Narrated side by side with Katie’s childhood is her life 25 years on, which is continually intercut into the first story. Under the supervision of Octavia Spencer, she does social work with underprivileged kids like a little girl whose mother, a prostitute, was murdered in front of her eyes. Played with understated aplomb by Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), the child demonstrates more maturity than Katie, who is reeling from some serious problems of her own. These center around her freewheeling sexual behavior: seducing strangers in bars, stand-up sex in public bathrooms, and so on. Since the same behavior seems okay for the menfolk, there’s a bit of a double standard at work here. Seyfried wears the loose woman mantle lightly, however, and the moralizing isn’t too forced. Her neurosis is clearly less nymphomania than plain old fear of involvement. Katie only admits she has a problem when she meets aspiring writer Cameron(Breaking Bad regular Aaron Paul), who is much too earnest and trusting for his own good. Their love story is the film’s ho-hum subplot, with nice guy Paul being far from romantically engaging.
The English dialogue is naturalistic, but one wishes the platitudes were fewer. “Life is a challenge and unfair and painful, but we can never give up” summarizes the do-good spirit of the film. Tech credits are high quality throughout, with a special nod owing to Alex Rodriguez’s clever editing job.
Production companies: Andrea Leone Films, Busted Shark Productions, Voltage Pictures
Cast: Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Aaron Paul, Diane Kruger, Ryan Eggold, Jane Fonda
Director: Gabriele Muccino
Screenwriter: Brad Desch
Producers: Nicolas Chartier, Sherryl Clark, Craig J. Flores
Coproducers: Babacar Diene, Dominic Rustam
Associate producer: Bill Karesh
Executive producers: Russell Crowe, Romilda De Luca, Richard Middleton, Keith Rodger
Director of photography: Shane Hurlbut
Production designer: Daniel B. Clancy
Costume designer: Isis Mussenden
Editor: Alex Rodriguez
Music: Paolo Buonvino
World sales: Voltage Pictures
No rating, 116 minutes
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