By BRUCE DENNILL
The Hollars / Directed by John Krasinksi / PGL
Brad’s Status / Directed by Mike White / 16DL
Beatriz At Dinner / Directed by Miguel Arteta / 16DLPV
Maggie’s Plan / Directed by Rebecca Miller / 13L
The Hollars has a script filled with echoes of a dozen other stories in which a dysfunctional family faces an uncomfortable reunion when something tragic happens and individuals with apparently irreconcilable differences are forced into uncomfortable community once more. A wonderful cast – Richard Jenkins, Margo Martindale, Sharlto Copley, Anna Kendrick, Charlie Day and John Krasinski (who also directs) – have a great deal of heartfelt, warm and occasionally hysterical (in the agitated sense) interaction with a cleverly written script. And their skill lifts the piece above the level of most of its competition in the genre. Martindale, as she so often does when starring alongside more famous but less talented co-stars, steals every scene she’s in and gives the film a formidable spine. There are no weak performances, and both humour and empathy are in rich supply.
Possessed of a cast of comparable appeal in Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, Jemaine Clement and Michael Sheen, Brad’s Status doesn’t transcend its limitations as well. It’s also a familiar type of tale – a middle-aged man struggling to come to terms with his own shortfalls and disappointments when faced with the successes of his friends and family (in this case a musical prodigy son, played by Austin Abrams) – and though there’s an artsy otherness to the mood of the film, Brad’s (Stiller) gloom may prove too heavy a burden for many viewers. The bigger names in smaller roles have a lot of fun, with Clement being typically offbeat as a hyper-rich hippy and Sheen offering his patented line in unbearable condescension as an acquaintance Brad reaches out to for assistance. It’s certainly easy to connect with the title character’s emotional stuggles, but less so to care deeply for him.
An examination of toxic affluence and a bare-faced critique of Donald Trump and everything he stands for, Beatriz At Dinner sees a Mexican health therapist (Salma Hayek) stranded – absolutely the correct word in the context – in a construction millionaire’s mansion when her car won’t start after giving the lady of the house a treatment. Matters are considerably complicated by the arrival of dinner guests including one Doug Strutt (a disdainful John Lithgow, only too happy for you to hate his character), a real estate magnate with a reputation for doing whatever is necessary – at whatever cost to health or happiness – to get his deals through. Beatriz and Strutt are polar opposites and tension is inevitable, as is the incredible awkwardness that descends on the dinner party. But it is not only these protagonists who fill out the picture the film is trying to paint, with the other guests being the sort of ignorant, entitled, over-funded people who will make confident statements about how hunting is good for animals and how suppressed minorities should be grateful that things aren’t as bad as they used to be. Their glibness is more horrifying than any of the much more obviously violent ideas they endorse, and the pain Beatriz experiences as a result is exquisite, and perhaps impossible to process. The piece is not entirely satisfying and a couple of obvious nips and tucks could have easily improved it, but it’s a helpful marker of the society and era in which the film was made.
In Maggie’s Plan, what might otherwise have been developed into an edgy romantic comedy is melded, in a way, with a B-grade Robert Altman ensemble piece sensibility to produce a piece that falls gracelessly between two stools. The talent of the cast is undoubted, but other than a couple played by Saturday Night Live staples Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph (who only have small supporting roles), it’s a strenuous business trying to build up much affection for anyone. Ethan Hawke’s struggling novelist character is wishy-washy and tedious, making the title character’s (Greta Gerwig) infatuation with him seem ridiculous, and reflecting poorly on her character and decision-making. Julianne Moore, as Hawke’s imperious wife, puts in a good shift but is supposed to be unlikeable, so the viewer is not meant with much to connect to. There are a couple of moments where there is potential for a Woody Allen-esque diversion, but those opportunities are largely ignored.