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May 12, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | May 12, 2006 |

Writer/director Noah Baumbach dealt with what life is like, or at least what his life was like, growing up with authors for parents in his recent The Squid and the Whale. It’s a funny, sharp, subtle, and well-made film; it would be hard to call it outright enjoyable, but it’s certainly a respectable story of neurosis, loneliness, and family bonds that manage to survive a rough divorce. All in all, both for tone and setting, it’s about as exact an opposite as I can offer for Winter Passing, the first feature from writer/director Adam Rapp, a New York-based playwright. His dull, lifeless film carries all the superficial emotional weight you’d expect from a theater vet; he’s confused indecision with ambiguity and stilted line readings with actual nuance, and the result is a soppy, meandering, unresolved mess of a student film.

Reese Holden (Zooey Deschanel), a coke fiend and young actress in New York, is approached after a show one night by a literary agent, Lori (Amy Madigan), asking for a favor: Lori wants Reese to return home to reconnect with her father, author Don Holden (Ed Harris), once a famous public figure who’s since slid into a state of Salingerian recluse. Don and his late wife, Reese’s mother, corresponded for three years before they married, and Lori wants Reese to recover the letters so they can be published. Complemented by Deschanel’s monotonal alto, Reese is as flat as a character can be, a sallow and morose girl who exists only for Rapp to hypothesize what a sallow and morose girl would do in a really bad play. At first I was bored by Reese, then put off, but I gave up on her completely when she did something cruel and inhumane for absolutely no reason: After discovering her kitten has feline leukemia, she zips it up in a duffel bag and drops it in the river. It’s such a stupid, unfeeling, blatantly film-school turn for the screenplay to take, I had to force myself not to walk out. Reese is a deeply unlikable girl, and stays that way.

After milking Lori for bus fare, Reese heads home to Michigan to discover that Don has moved into his garage, and his house is now occupied by Shelly (Amelia Warner), a former writing student, and Corbit (Will Ferrell), a kind but simple-minded guy who doesn’t do anything but fix Shelly’s car, play his guitar, and hit a bucket of balls with Don every night. Ferrell brings the same sweet, gentle spirit to the role that he displayed in Elf, and his presence lightens some scenes to an almost watchable level. Similarly, Warner does the best she can with the cardboard role she’s been given; sweet, cute, and probably not likely to murder any house pets, she’s the anti-Reese. I found myself wishing we could learn more of Corbit’s and Shelly’s respective backstories, or at least spend more time with them now, but Rapp barely uses them. They’re underused as tenants of Don’s house; for all the function they provide, they might as well be townies, seen randomly at a bar.

Reese’s homecoming is an awkward affair; she didn’t attend her mother’s funeral out of protest for being neglected as a child, the kind of logic only an aspiring actress could invent. She snaps needlessly at Shelly, and their interactions that are meant to come off as mild sparring instead just serve to further alienate the viewer from Reese. Corbit’s too nice to fight back, though, and even develops a mild crush on Reese, which I think we can all predict won’t end that well.

Harris is an accomplished actor, and these simple surroundings allow him to outshine his costars in every way possible. Deschanel never rises above caricature, but Harris creates a genuine character with his portrayal of Holden, a physically weak man whose mind is sadly beginning to atrophy, as well. Harris is so far above the rest of the cast that he feels like a baby-sitter, ably guiding struggling actors through material Harris could do in his sleep. On the heels of Empire Falls and A History of Violence, this is definitely a step down for him.

Reese eventually finds her father’s old love letters, but she also discovers his unpublished novel, which Corbit buried in the backyard at Don’s request. What’s it about? How does it make her feel? Good questions; if Rapp knows, he isn’t telling. So much of what passes for plot development here is really nothing more than an egotistical drama exercise dressed up as a character study dressed up as genuine drama. This is the biggest flaw in Rapp’s self-indulgent filmmaking: There’s no reason for any of this to be happening, and Rapp never thinks of one. Reese begins the film as a sullen, dour, ill-natured girl and ends it exactly the same, but Rapp thinks that having her visit her father and wander aimlessly counts as moving through an emotional arc. Winter Passing is like a really bad short story about a really interesting short story; we get too much of one and not enough of the other. Cutting Reese out of the picture and developing the relationships between Don, Corbit, and Shelly would have made for an interesting film. Too bad no one told Rapp.

Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.

Winter Passing / Daniel Carlson

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