If you were to create a spoof of independent family dramedies, it might share a lot in common with "The Hollars." That's not to knock the relatable, familiar and big-hearted intentions of writer Jim Strouse and director/star John Krasinski ("The Office"), but their movie is rife with not just clichés, but the most obvious clichés. Most people could guess what will happen after witnessing just the first 20 minutes.
Like so many films before it, a major family occurrence brings the main character, in this case John Hollar (Krasinski), home from his big city life to his middle America hometown and into old and challenging dynamics. That inciting incident is news that mama Sally Hollar (Margo Martindale) has been diagnosed with an advanced brain tumor. Each Hollar takes the news differently, and it turns out that's not all they have to contend with; patriarch Don's (Richard Jenkins) family business is failing and older brother living at home, Ron (Sharlto Copley), is crossing the line with his ex-wife and two daughters. Oh, and John's girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) is eight months pregnant.
Strouse's story doesn't just embrace clichés, it leans into them. John has to face his high school sweetheart (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and her high-strung boyfriend (Charlie Day) who "happens" to be his mom's nurse; Ron contends with his ex's seemingly perfect youth pastor boyfriend (Josh Groban); Sally has emotional trouble shaving her head in preparation for her surgery. And that's without mentioning the pregnant girlfriend. No character's behavior, circumstances or outcome comes as any surprise.
In spite of it all, the film attracted all these terrific names in the parentheses above, and they lift Strouse's script about as high as it can go. The moments of the film that work work because of the talent. Krasinski does not offer much as a director to tell this story in a way that extends beyond the banal framework of the family that contends with big feelings and comes together in the face of adversity.
"The Hollars" will surely find fans in viewers who enjoy recognizable on-screen talent in a movie that's story safely goes where they want it to go, with its "profound" moments punctuated by indie folk music. Sure, the reason filmmakers started making movies like this in the first place was because there was something real, honest and tangible about this setup, and "The Hollars" touches these same universal themes and feelings. But Strouse's script feels more like a smattering of conveniently chosen archetypes, scenarios and personality traits weaved together to create that story instead of finding its own voice.
Especially considering the talents of Krasinski, Kendrick, Jenkins, Martingale, etc. the lack of originality creates a staggering amount of apathy for their characters and the cookie-cutter ups and downs of the story. There's something bizarre about seeing moments in this film that are well-acted and come from such a sincere place, but feel empty because they go down exactly as you'd expect a movie to draw them up. Empathy requires novel moments in which viewers feel compelled to put themselves in a character's shoes. "The Hollars" proves that the key word in that formula is "novel," because if we've already pondered all of these exact predicaments depicted in a film, it's not so exciting to put on that old pair of shoes, even when they offer some familiar comforts.
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