How beloved is character actress Margo Martindale? Netflix's cult animated show "BoJack Horseman" features a running gag in which she voices a fictional version of herself who is consistently referred to as ... "beloved character actress Margo Martindale."
It's no exaggeration: Martindale's fleet-tongued, no-nonsense, grounded presence has enhanced a slew of films and helped propel TV shows like "Justified" into the stratosphere. She's unquestionably the best thing about The Hollars, a quirky family drama built around her character, matriarch Sally Hollar. But even she can't save the movie from its half-baked script and colorless direction.
The Hollars is the second feature directorial effort from John Krasinski (of "The Office"), who also stars as Sally's son John. He has escaped from the family's fly-over town to Manhattan, where his high-powered heiress girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) is expecting their child. But when John learns that Sally has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, he rushes home to rejoin the oddball family from which he's been virtually estranged.
It's not hard to see why. Dad (Richard Jenkins, another justly beloved character actor) is a forlorn fellow whose business is sliding into bankruptcy. John's brother, Ron (Sharlto Copley), is an equally sad-sack divorcé who lives in his parents' basement and spends his spare time stalking his ex. With her vital, booming laugh, Sally anchors the family, but her days may be numbered.
The premise offers ample potential for both laughter and tears, in the well-worn Home for the Holidays vein. But the screenplay, by James C. Strouse, never gives us the solid grounding in Hollar history that we'd need to know and root for these people. We too rarely see them as an ensemble, telling in-jokes and bickering as only family can; we don't get a firm sense of what kept Mom and Dad together, or which roles the two sons played growing up. Instead, Strouse takes us on bizarre tangents that eventually dead-end, such as a subplot involving John's high school girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and her jealous nurse husband (Charlie Day).
To distract from the lack of focus, perhaps, Krasinski has chosen to smother the film in an unending succession of soulful acoustic guitar tunes. Crooning singer-songwriters keep telling us to feel, feel, feel, just as the script keeps insistently reminding us that it's about Important Life Passages. (This is the kind of movie where, if someone is due to go into labor, you can bet it will happen during a wedding or a funeral.)
The Hollars does achieve occasional poignant moments, most of them due to Martindale's warm presence and the goodwill she inspires. But the other actors have little to work with. Krasinski's performance is a series of reaction shots, while Jenkins — shockingly, for anyone who knows his work — overplays a few scenes. By contrast, for perhaps the first time in his career, Copley gives a toned-down performance, but his character's weepy, loose-cannon behavior remains more comic-relief gimmick than believable dysfunction.
The film's central theme — John is coming to terms with becoming a dad by reconnecting with his own family — is just too hackneyed to slip by with this slapdash execution. The vagueness of so many of the details — the setting and the family business remain unnamed; doctors and nurses don't follow hospital protocol — gives the film a cardboard, sitcom-esque feel that's entirely unworthy of its cast. Whether live-action or animated, Martindale will remain beloved; this particular entry on her résumé, not so much.