'Lullaby': Film Review

Garrett Hedlund Lullaby - P 2014

Garrett Hedlund Lullaby - P 2014

As a dying man, Richard Jenkins breathes life into a stillborn drama.

Richard Jenkins and Garrett Hedlund play father and son in a drama revolving around the right to die.

A terminally ill man’s plan to end his life sparks a healing crisis in his immediate family, his black-sheep son in particular, in the New York-set Lullaby. Inspired by personal experiences, writer-director Andrew Levitas has dramatized a debate about assisted suicide, hitting points both tender and political rather squarely on the head. His compassion is clear. But unlike another film in stateside release that addresses the same subject, Marco Bellocchio’s Dormant Beauty, this feature debut deals mainly in clichés, never transforming the tough question at its center into compelling cinema.

However much they’re an audience draw, the impressive ensemble of well-known actors, in parts large and small, are all saddled with one-note characters. The notable exception is Richard Jenkins, whose dying patriarch anchors the unconvincing story with contradictory energy — he’s quietly brave, slyly manipulative, loving, smart and funny, and ready to end his suffering.

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Jenkins plays Robert, a once high-flying businessman who’s bedridden, hospitalized and hooked up to several machines, including a ventilator. Estranged son Jonathan (Garrett Hedlund) arrives from the Coast, expecting to find his father facing another round of surgery or treatments. But after living with cancer (of an unspecified type) for 12 years, against the medical odds, Robert is wracked with pain. He’s tired of the toll his deteriorating condition is taking on his devoted wife (Anne Archer), and has asked his doctor (Terrence Howard, wasted) to take him off life support.

While Jonathan’s lawyer sister (Jessica Brown Findlay) jumps into lawyerly action, filing an injunction to prevent the plan from proceeding, Jonathan acts out, reconnects with the one who got away (Amy Adams) and befriends a young hospital patient who’s facing her own mortality. As the 17-year-old, baldheaded Meredith, Jessica Barden transcends the built-in sentimentality of a stock role — a terminal patient who’s precociously blunt and wise beyond her years — and makes Meredith’s vulnerability fully felt. Similarly underplaying the feisty/mouthy aspect of her part, Jennifer Hudson delivers some of her most convincing film work to date as a nurse who minces no words when she thinks Robert’s kids need a reality check.

It’s not necessary to like the characters, but it’s hard to feel invested in them. The emotional currents in Levitas’ screenplay have a shallow transparency that could have used some muddying complications (Archer’s tensely smiling caretaker suggests a barely acknowledged undertow). Unfolding through on-the-nose dialogue and uneven direction, the drama fails to take hold. Most problematic is that the familial tension at the heart of Jonathan’s rebirth feels manufactured — referred to, not deeply ingrained.

Although Jonathan is meant to be something of a bad boy (he smokes on the plane!), and often speaks in anger, Hedlund imbues the musician with a laid-back decency; he’s wounded, not implacable. Having turned his back on an Ivy League education, he’s ashamed that his rock ’n’ roll dreams haven’t panned out. There’s no room for truly revelatory interactions, though, when everything is so clearly spelled out. Hedlund's three quite good musical numbers, very different from one another, express more about Jonathan than any conversations do. But in a supporting role with few lines in Inside Llewyn Davis, the actor created a far more full-blooded character, and an indelible one.

Jenkins, who’s out of bed (and in a toupee) only during a couple of flashbacks, uses Robert’s physical limitations to strong effect, his absorbing performance built on voice (weak and cracked) and gaze (sharp and observant).

The story plays out as an extended family goodbye that includes a winningly strange Passover seder, all of it set in or around the hospital. With little sense of the chaos and despair that underlie the heavy quiet of such a place, it’s a hermetic setting, reflecting the affluent family’s privilege. It also feels underpopulated, except for the children’s ward where a couple of particularly heavy-handed scenes take place.

Cinematographer Florian Ballhaus captures the subdued gleam of the state-of-the-art facility, and the contrasting freedom of Manhattan’s nighttime streets, where Jonathan and his kind, truth-speaking ex-girlfriend have a key encounter. Levitas, whose background is in fine art, makes a few visual choices that are self-conscious and overwrought in their attempt to convey Jonathan’s state of mind. In keeping with the tone of the movie, the score by Patrick Leonard strikes obvious chords.

Production companies: Avenue Pictures and Ananta Productions in association with MetalWork Pictures and Media House Capital
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Richard Jenkins, Jessica Brown Findlay, Anne Archer, Jennifer Hudson, Jessica Barden, Terrence Howard, Amy Adams
Director: Andrew Levitas
Screenwriter: Andrew Levitas
Producers: Andrea Stone-Brokaw, Cary Brokaw
Executive producers: David Ostrander, Chloe Green, Aaron L. Gilbert, Michael Bederman
Director of photography: Florian Ballhaus
Production designer: Stuart Wurtzel
Costume designers: Michelle Matland, Ann Roth
Editor: Julie Monroe
Composer: Patrick Leonard
Rated R, 117 minutes