'Nostalgia': Film Review | Palm Springs 2018

Nostalgia Trailer Still - Screengrab - H 2018
Screengrab/Bleecker Street
Sterling actors can't lighten this leaden dirge.

Jon Hamm, Catherine Keener, Ellen Burstyn and Bruce Dern contribute their talents to this multipart tale of characters struggling with loss and grief.

Nostalgia, which had its world premiere in Palm Springs this week, is an ambitious movie from some well-regarded filmmakers and actors, but it just doesn’t jell. The film revives a mode of storytelling without a single protagonist, flowing from one group of characters to another. The archetypal example may be Max Ophuls’ La Ronde, which followed a series of sexual contacts, leading to new characters and stories every 10 or 15 minutes. Commercial movies like Black Beauty and The Yellow Rolls Royce have utilized the same format, and more recently, adventurous filmmakers have experimented with this structure in such films as Go and Pulp Fiction. Nostalgia is neither as entertaining nor as stylistically stimulating as any of those earlier efforts. Commercial prospects are dim.

The film, written by Alex Ross Perry and directed by Mark Pellington, is built around the theme of grief and of value placed on mementos transmitted from generation to generation. It begins with an insurance agent (John Ortiz) visiting an elderly man (Bruce Dern) to appraise the value of some of his possessions. Then the same insurance agent visits a widow (Ellen Burstyn), who lost her house in a fire but managed to salvage a few precious objects, including a baseball signed by Ted Williams. The insurance agent then disappears from the film, and we follow the widow to Las Vegas, where she delivers the baseball to a collectible-shop owner, played by Jon Hamm. The baseball plays no further role in the story, but Hamm travels to see his sister (Catherine Keener), who is trying to liquidate their parents’ home and salvage any letters and photographs that may be of value.

Pellington (the director of last year’s Shirley MacLaine-Amanda Seyfried vehicle The Last Word) has said that grief over the death of his wife and mother led him to imagine this story, and he solicited Perry’s help in crafting a screenplay. At the start of the film, the actors pique our interest. Dern has moments of sly wit as a cantankerous hoarder, and Burstyn is absolutely mesmerizing in her moments onscreen. But these scenes seem protracted, without enough sharp details in the writing or energy in the direction to keep our eyes from glazing over.

Performances continue to scintillate. Hamm doesn’t have to stretch, but he is engaging. Keener, who has to deal with a sudden loss during the last section of the film, achieves moments of searing emotion, and in the very last scene, another character figures prominently—a teenage friend of Keener’s daughter—and the performance by Mikey Madison is one of the most eloquent in the film. She’s so touching that we wish she had more than five minutes of screen time. Some of the other actors, including Amber Tamblyn, James LeGros and Patton Oswalt, have even less time to make an impression. Perhaps some of their scenes were left on the cutting room floor. Yet even with such truncated bits, the film still seems terribly protracted.

Perry has been prone to pretension in his earlier films like Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth, and he hasn’t shown much instinct for dramatic tension. But Pellington does him no favors here by lingering over scenes of emotional desolation. The film is handsomely photographed, but some of the arty images — like a shot of an empty Las Vegas hotel corridor — seem quite pointless. And the pacing is positively lugubrious. No doubt everyone can relate to the central idea of wondering about the purpose of the mementos we leave behind or those we discover after a death in the family. But a promising theme does not necessarily make for a satisfying movie. 

Cast:  Jon Hamm, Catherine Keener, Ellen Burstyn, Bruce Dern, John Ortiz, Amber Tamblyn, Nick Offerman, Annalise Basso, Mikey Madison

Director: Mark Pellington

Screenwriter: Alex Ross Perry

Story by: Alex Ross Perry, Mark Pellington

Producers:  Tom Gorai, Mark Pellington, Josh Braun

Executive producers:  O’Shea Read, Alex Ross Perry, Jim Steele

Director of photography:  Matt Sakatani Roe

Production designer:  Paul L. Jackson

Costume designer:  Laura Frecon

Editor:  Arndt-Wulf Peemoller

Music:  Laurent Eyquem

R, 114 minutes