YOUTH IN OREGON (2017)

February 4, 2017

youth-in-oregon Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those tough little indie movies that would fit right in at most film festivals. Directed by Joel David Moore and written by Andrew Eisen, the film has a few exceptional scenes, yet once it’s over, it’s pretty easy to just leave it behind. That shouldn’t happen with a story dealing with a theme of death with dignity. Shouldn’t there be a desire to talk about the issue, or at least spend some time in thought?

Perhaps the reason this one isn’t the gut-punch we expect is that while the central reason for the story is 80 year old Ray’s (Frank Langella) desire to end life on his terms, the vast majority of screen time is devoted to the exceptionally dysfunctional family that surrounds him. It’s not an “issue” movie, and dysfunctional family movies are about as common as superhero movies these days … we’ve become a bit numb.

Ray and his wife Estelle (Mary Kay Place) are living with their daughter Kate (Christina Applegate), her husband Brian (Billy Crudup) and Kate and Brian’s teenage daughter Annie (Nicola Peltz). It’s a crowded house where emotions run high, voices are usually amped to 11, and Kate and Brian’s marriage is stressed to the limit with responsibilities.

Bad news at the doctor’s office leads Ray to the crucial decision on his future. He announces this while giving the most uncomfortable birthday speech ever at dinner that evening … “I want to die.” It’s a terrific scene and each person’s reaction is priceless – to the point where we almost wish it were in slow motion so as not to miss anything.

Typically poor teenage judgment by daughter Annie means mother Kate stays at home for discipline, while Brian reluctantly agrees to drive Ray cross country to Oregon to find out if he qualifies under the mercy killing law. Estelle and her always present booze come along for the ride, but it’s mostly the strained relationship between Ray and Brian that generate the fireworks. Along the way, they add Ray’s estranged gay son Danny (Josh Lucas), as well as Brian’s angry college age son Nick (Alex Shaffer). Once they reach Oregon, another wonderful scene/sequence occurs as Ray meets up with a longtime friend who has made the same decision. It’s a well handled and well acted portion of the story.

Ray’s decision to hide his medical diagnosis from the family is the source of the most recent conflict, but there’s a history in this family. Isn’t that always the case? A lack of communication often causes even more issues than too much honesty. The abundance of dysfunction can’t be offset by some peaceful bird-watching, and all of the frustration and anger prevents the necessary conversations on the more interesting topic … a reason to live vs. a desire to die. A slight re-focus would have taken more advantage of the terrific performance of Langella, and added some fun to the post movie discussion.

watch the trailer:

 


WIN WIN

March 28, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Thomas McCarthy‘s first two directorial outings were excellent: The Station Agent, The Visitor. This is his third and it seems clear the first two were not flukes. He is a filmmaker who knows what he is doing and is attracted to real people in real life situations. All three films feature the reactions and adaptations when strangers collide and a family-like atmosphere is created.

In this film, Paul Giamatti plays a struggling lawyer who also coaches the local high school wrestling team. Times are tough for Giamatti’s practice and when he stumbles on a chance for some “easy” money, his wrestling match with his conscience doesn’t last too long … even though it is not in the best interest of his client. By taking the easy way out, his elderly client is moved out of his home and into a long-term care facility. Giamatti knows his decision isn’t right, so he hides it from his wife, the talented Amy Ryan. Their home life seems very typical until the Giamatti decision leads to further complications … the client’s long-lost grandson shows up.

 The kid turns out to be quite perceptive and fits right into the Giamatti/Ryan family … especially when it is discovered that he is a top notch high school wrestler. Newcomer Alex Shaffer was cast because of his wrestling skills, but shines in the film due to his ability to come across as a real kid in real world conflicts. There are times his actions and decisions are more adult than the adults.  An interesting running theme throughout the film is “whatever it takes” … sometimes this is used for good, sometimes things are a bit gray.

The grandfather client is played by Burt Young, who was Paulie in the Rocky movies. Giamatti’s best friend is played by Bobby Cannavale, whose character is going through marital hell, and whose lively spirit and outspoken tendencies provide many of the laughs in the film. Cannavale shines in this film, much as he did as the slightly desperate vendor in The Station Agent.

 Things are going along pretty well for the new “family” until Shaffer’s mother (Melanie Lynskey) is released from the drug clinic and she shows up to re-claim her son and her share of grandpa’s wealth. She and her attorney (another nice role for Margo Martindale) expose Giamatti’s earlier unethical decision and force his hand. The strength of the family is severely tested.

What I really like about this and the two previous McCarthy films are that no  Hollywood tricks are used. He hits situations head-on with realistic levels of comedy and uncomfortable people who are just trying to get along in life. In Win Win, the stellar cast brings life to these characters and draw us right in to their attempts at conflict resolution. Even though the theme is not too far removed from that of The Blind Side, Mr. McCarthy provides us with characters who could be from our own lives or even our own families. That makes all the difference.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  real characters dealing with real life situations create the type of com-dram you enjoy OR you just want to see a movie with high school students who actually look like high school students (not 28 yr old actors) OR you want to see the power of a strong ensemble cast

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: The Blind Side was as realistic as you prefer movies to get OR you want to avoid the sight of Paul Giamatti jogging or unclogging a toilet