Lovely, Still
Reviewed in October 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Nik Fackler. Cast: Martin Landau, Ellen Burstyn, Adam Scott, Elizabeth Banks, James Devney, Leo Fitzpatrick. Screenplay: Nik Fackler.
Twitter Capsule: Congrats to the first-timer and his diligent stars, who finally got a release. But it's still a dire miscalculation.

Photo © 2008 Parts and Labor/North Sea Films
If you, like me, get immersed in the sport of forecasting Oscar possibilities, or if you take testy, abiding exception to the constantly narrowing demographics that Hollywood is willing to gratify with its releases and those whom it congenitally ignores, or if you belong to both of these camps, you can easily get caught up defending a film like Nik Fackler's Lovely, Still before you've even seen it, which is to say, before you truly know anything about it. Fackler's debut played to generally affectionate reviews over a year ago at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival but has yet to find a U.S. distributor. Why do the studios hate supporting films in which an older audience might recognize themselves? Why can't we take advantage of a rare opportunity to see Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn in leading film roles, as they both prepare for their 80th birthdays? Who wouldn't want to see Landau and Burstyn get another shot at the Academy podium? I have amassed surprisingly ardent, defensive feelings on all of these scores, and if the general principle still holds in all three cases, the ugly truth is that Lovely, Still isn't, or isn't just, the unfairly foresaken property that I had imagined it to be, much less is it the warm, generous, valedictory vehicle for two expert actors that I had hoped. It begins as a markedly reductive, overly emphatic, technically limited picture, barely if at all elevated from those TV movies from the 80s and 90s when Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, or Katharine Hepburn and Anthony Quinn, or whoever, would discover their smothered capacities for new love well into their dotage—and inevitably in the gaudy shadow of a well-festooned Christmas tree. Breaking out from a bizarre prologue of indelicate music, roughly executed crane shots, and alternating red and indigo fogs, Lovely, Still finds Landau playing a nominal employee of a local grocery store, sketching quietly at his table instead of stocking many shelves, and Burstyn as the new neighbor across the street whose somewhat officious visits soon lead (surprise!) to a first date and a giddy flush—first on her cheeks, but quickly enough on his, too. Adam Scott (Knocked Up) and Elizabeth Banks (W, Zack and Miri Make a Porno) do what little they can with the compulsory side-roles of Landau's younger boss and Burstyn's somewhat dour daughter.

From here, it's snowfall and sleds and blanketed sleigh rides and candlelit dinners. For two actors whose unimpeachable commitment to their craft often has an uncomfortably ambassadorial quality—Landau and Burstyn both tend to talk about acting as though it's a blend of hallowed laboratory science and left-of-center pseudochurch—they both seem grateful just to have a crack at a leading role. Burstyn in particular pushes much less than she tends to do, even in her greatest performances. Granted, there's not much to act in wasted, hollowly showy moments as when Landau brushes and flosses his considerable teeth directly into the camera. I kept wondering how he's never been cast as Julia Roberts's paterfamilias, or whether Burstyn balked at seeing the visual and montage techniques of Requiem for a Dream mimicked in such an arbitrary, neutered way for these repetitive sequences. The surfeiting of flashy form isn't done there: we are treated to a few split-screens, too, even though you wish that writer-director Fackler would tamp down the stylistic effusions and just figure out how to angle, light, and frame a more modestly beautiful, temperamentally evocative image. Most characters are forced to act dumber than they are—Landau being surprised that women like to be complimented on their appearance, Scott pitching ridiculous ideas for Christmas-themed recipe books and writing love-letter haikus that would be tossed out from many a student's script as too obviously stupid. Thank goodness there's the pleasure of two starring actors who can take a line like "My name is Mary," or "My name is Robert Malone," or "Mine's horrible," or "I think you're a real artist" and put some emotion into it, even layers of emotion. Well played, Ellen and Martin. But that's about all you can say for Lovely, Still.

It eventually becomes possible, indeed necessary, to say more about Lovely, Still, but none of it is to the film's advantage. In place of one bathetic finale that the viewer will likely have projected, we instead bear witness to one of the most crudely forced "twist" revelations I can remember, care of an extended sequence of such unmotivated action, uncertain montage, overstated performance, and insane technical grandiosity that I can only describe it as the lost-in-the-woods sequence from On Golden Pond as re-directed by Wayne Kramer. The music in the film, which has already shown an incongruous predilection for hipster rock and bland Christmas carols, rather than any idiom that might mean something unique to the movie's characters, opts for even more parodic crescendos and awkward effects. While I'm sure that Fackler would like us to revisit every detail in the preceding acts in order to perceive the premonitory traces of the information he has just unveiled, I wanted to box his ears for wringing such a smug, obnoxious, and tonally insincere narrative hairpin out of an issue that surely invites a lighter, gentler touch. And that's to say nothing of a profound lack of clarity that persists around some important rudiments of the film's scenario, even after you have learned What Is Going On. Garish in the extreme, both in its sounds and images and in its lack of tact and maturity, and hurtling to an abrupt conclusion because the show-offy twist hasn't inspired the filmmakers to grapple at all with the situational or emotional implications of what they have just introduced, Lovely, Still made me feel sorry for its venerable stars, despite my fondness for their legacies and my gratitude for their committed best efforts through most of the film.

Very, very often a story like this, with a cast like this and a budget like this, would be ignored by major studios and distributors because they are crassly and misguidedly obsessed with youth and with Hasbro and hamburger tie-ins. In this case, it would seem, or at least I would hope, that Lovely, Still has been ignored because the picture has neither the technical proficiency nor the evidence of directorial compassion that merit a wider platform. Everything that inspires the characters' tenderness toward each other, however plausibly or not, has inspired the director to scrawl his signature over some of the year's most off-putting sequences and to advertise his first-timer vulnerabilities in the scenes that are merely inoffensive. I wish him the best in other efforts, and I certainly crave a quick rebound for Zoo photographer Sean Kirby and Babel co-editor Douglas Crise, but I'm officially done rooting for Lovely, Still. Grade: D

VOR: (1)   (What is this?)
Despite its formal speciousness and its profound undermining of the story, very nearly sinking everything that's thoughtful and valiant in the performances (at least under the circumstances), one is almost inclined to give Lovely, Still a smidge of benefit of the doubt here. For anyone, much less a young, first-time filmmaker, to base an American film on two octogenarian stars is clearly to work against the inexorable tide of what is surely one of the most youth-centric societies imaginable; after that very forgiving Toronto buzz, the film still required two years to secure even a micro-release in the two tentpole cities. So, it's not fair to say Fackler takes no risks, and it's even less fair given that, however misjudged his story structure and stylistic approach reveal themselves to be, he didn't opt completely for the dewy, postcardy aesthetic that TV networks tend to wipe all over the movies they make for the late-in-life cloud, hoping that demure "respectfulness" will go down smoothly in place of real feeling, or art. I can't say I have forgotten the film, but the deleterious power of just how awful the film becomes after that plot reveal exerts itself even here. Fackler hasn't "risked" an evocation of old age, of late romance, or of Alzheimer's that seems remotely informed by the perspective of an older person, as Away from Her unquestionably did, and rather than seeming innovative or unexpected, Lovely, Still just comes across seeming arbitrary, self-aggrandizing, and crass, which is not the kind of risk the VOR is meant to reward.

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