'The Hollars': Sundance Review

A comfort-food recipe that doesn't venture beyond tested ingredients.

John Krasinski's second film as actor-director is a bittersweet ensemble comedy-drama about a dysfunctional clan brought together by the life-threatening illness of its beloved matriarch.

In his second foray behind the camera following a patchy attempt to grapple with David Foster Wallace's distinctive prose in 2009's Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, actor-director John Krasinski sticks to an awfully familiar indie template in The Hollars.

Judicious balance of droll humor and sincere sentiment? Check. Quirky gallery of quarrelsome but affectionate characters? Check. Universal themes of life, death, commitment and familial love? Check. Gentle folk-rock punctuating every scene? Check again. This one is straight out of the old-school Sundance manual. Still, there's enough warmth, humor and heart in the very slick package, not to mention a gaggle of accomplished and well-cast actors, all of which should ensure decent VOD traction.

Imagine Garden State, another film by an actor-turned-director, Zach Braff, with central characters roughly 10 years older and you're halfway there. That should be enough to please audiences who don't mind having traveled down this very same road countless times before.

The chief reward is the cast, which mixes TV regulars (Charlie Day from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Randall Park from Fresh Off the Boat, Margo Martindale from pretty much everything on television) with a pleasing bunch of indie and studio picture regulars. It even gives South African District 9 vet Sharlto Copley an agreeable chance to interact with humans. If all that never transcends the unoriginality of Jim Strouse's script, it's at least a sweet, compact affair that yields low-key, character-driven laughs and tears.

When salty, good-humored matriarch Sally Hollar (Martindale) has a seizure while working a curling wand, Dr. Fong (Park) informs the family that she has an advanced brain tumor. Her distraught husband of 38 years, Don (Richard Jenkins), blames himself for sending her to Jenny Craig in response to various symptoms. He calls Rebecca (Anna Kendrick) in New York, who steps into action, getting her long-term boyfriend and the Hollars' youngest son, John (Krasinski), on a plane home.

Already, there's a nagging generic quality to Strouse's writing. Becca and John both have cool New York jobs that bear no relevance to anything in the plot — she designs pet clothing, he's in publishing but is working on a graphic novel without much conviction. And while the film is shot in Mississippi and it's later revealed that Becca gets to the Hollars' house in an eight-hour Yellow Cab ride (a tired movie contrivance), John could be returning to Anyplace, Middle America. As he arrives back in town, he gazes with melancholy wistfulness at the same unchanged landmarks that greet every returning movie son: church, high school, drugstore, etc.

Of course, there are also the embers of his former high school flame, Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), to sift through; she's married to Jason (Day), the nurse responsible for Sally's hospital care, who instantly goes on the defensive when John lands back on his turf.

Independently wealthy Becca is heavily pregnant but John has grown ambivalent about the relationship, and hasn't felt compelled to ask her to marry him. However, he's a model of maturity compared to older brother Ron (Copley).

Having moved back in with Mom and Dad following his divorce, Ron stalks the home where his ex-wife Stacey (Ashley Duke) is living with her new man, Reverend Dan (Josh Groban). Ron is unhappy about the stubbornly nice-guy youth pastor raising his two daughters.

In addition to Sally's illness, all is not well with the family heating and plumbing business, which John learns is on the brink of bankruptcy. And Don's collateral is shot, meaning he can't even get a loan to make payroll. John would know all this if he hadn't been so lax about keeping in touch or visiting.

There are few, if any, developments that you don't see coming here, right down to John sneaking his ice cream and pretzels-loving mother out of the hospital in a wheelchair joyride for a slap-up diner meal before she undergoes risky surgery.

The principal anchor that keeps the formulaic plot engaging is the ever-reliable Martindale. Always ready with a deadpan crack and a wry smile no matter how grave the news, Sally breaks just a little when she learns that her head needs to be shaved. "I'll look ridiculous," she says. "I'll look like Rod Steiger." That makes her flooding emotional release just prior to the operation genuinely moving, even if Krasinski then smothers the moment in cute by having Don, Ron and John (Really? They even rhyme?) sing her off to surgery with the Indigo Girls.

Jenkins nonetheless has lovely moments as blubbery Dan, and he and Martindale sketch a lifetime of imperfect happiness together with just a few gestures and looks.

While Kendrick is appealing as always, her comic chops are underutilized in a sober, sensible role with zero edge. Krasinski casts himself as the likable lost dude who finds his commitment through a renewed understanding of what family means. Copley and Day get most of the fun stuff to play, handling their comedic chores with ease.

The film is certainly not without sincere feeling, though Krasinski seems to lack confidence in the strength of the story's emotions to resonate without help, judging by the extent to which he plasters alt-folk singer-songwriter Josh Ritter's melodic score and songs over every scene transition. But for a directorial effort devoid of ambition, The Hollars at least is handled with taste and restraint by the overqualified actors. And maybe Krasinski has earned some unchallenging downtime after going through Michael Bay boot camp on 13 Hours.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: Sycamore Pictures, Sunday Night, in association with Groundswell Productions
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Charlie Day, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, John Krasinski, Margo Martindale, Josh Groban, Randall Park, Mary Kay Place, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ashley Dyke, Didi Costine, Isabella Costine

Director: John Krasinski
Screenwriter: Jim Strouse
Producers: John Krasinski, Tom Rice, Allyson Seeger, Ben Nearn

Executive producers: Michael London, Janice Williams, Mike Sablone, Jim Strouse
Director of photography: Eric Alan Edwards

Production designer: Daniel B. Clancy
Costume designer: Caroline Eselin-Schaefer

Music: Josh Ritter
Editor: Heather Persons

Sales: WME

Not rated, 89 minutes