If you took that Tyler Durden rant about how “the things you own end up owning you” from Fight Club and combined it with that Don Draper pitch from Mad Men, the one from season one finale “The Carousel,” about the “twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone” (you know, the one that made Harry Crane cry), then you have the film Nostalgia. What was the last movie you saw with your parents, grandparents, or older relatives and loved ones, maybe The Post? Maybe Coco? Well, figure out where Nostalgia is playing and grab yourself some tissues because they are going to be all over this one.
Filmmaker Alex Ross Perry treads somewhat familiar ground here in a story that links together three individuals and their stuff, presenting actors we recognize and treasure—the aforementioned Hamm, legends Bruce Dern and Ellen Burstyn, and the ever-emotive Catherine Keener—in conversations about how “life, love, and the things we leave behind.” There are moments of exceptional emotional clarity here; Hamm goes in the exact opposite way of his malevolent, self-absorbed Baby Driver character and taps into the self-pitying logic he perfected as Don Draper, whereas Keener, who so terrified us in hopeful future Best Picture Get Out, captures scorchingly real pain.
But the movie lasts too long, approaching nearly two hours when it could have lasted closer to 80 minutes (like last week’s appreciatively brief The Party), and the points it makes aren’t particularly unique. Our stuff defines us, weighing us down with guilt and memory. Different generations view possessions differently; what your parents treasured may be of total disinterest to you. And in the absence of a particular person, one of their items may take their place; a widow may consider something that belonged to her late husband as more important than anything she owns herself.
Are those new concepts? Does Nostalgia examine them more insightfully than film or television that have approached them before, like say Mad Men? No to the first; sometimes to the second. More than anything, this is a movie to take in with your family as a way to tactfully bring up, “Hey, that thing you have? How did you get it? What memories do you have of it? Cool, cool, cool. … Can I have it?” (Or, if you’re not that willing to stake your claim quite yet, just, like, learn about your relatives and stuff.)
The film begins with insurance agent Daniel Kalman (John Ortiz), who because of both his profession and his own personality has a specific eye for stuff. He compliments a diner waitress on her jewelry; with clear satisfaction, he looks through the personal photographs, old cameras, and scuffed-up board games owned by Ronald Ashemore (Dern), whose home he’s appraising, before asking for permission to take a picture of the man while he’s surrounded by his things. Eventually, Daniel is assigned to visit the burned-down home of Helen Greer (Burstyn), who has lost practically everything in the destruction of her house, where she lived alone. The only thing she managed to save was a baseball proudly owned by her late husband; it was from some famous game or another, and she doesn’t know the details of why it was so important, but she knows it meant something to the man she once loved—and that was enough for her. But when faced with the prospect of starting over, Helen considers selling the memento, which connects her with sports memorabilia dealer Will Beam (Hamm), who meets with her in Las Vegas before leaving for his hometown, where he and his sister, Donna (Keener), are cleaning out their old childhood home.
Every story handles stuff in its own particular way: Daniel has a fascination with what various pieces mean to various people, evidenced in how he pores over what others would consider junk; Helen is only interested in what that one baseball meant to her husband, a man whose absence she feels deeply, especially now that the home they shared is gone; and Will looks at things practically, assigning a monetary value to items in a way that sometimes takes advantage of others’ sentimentality, wistfulness, or pain.
But the stories carry varying degrees of weight. Hamm and Keener do the heaviest lifting (even though a particular plot twist in their segment feels off-puttingly ham-fisted) and nail a push-pull sibling dynamic, and Amber Tamblyn pops up for a particularly moving monologue in the Ortiz-as-Daniel segment. But there’s a repetition to the segments that gets old after a while—lots of slow motion, lots of people lovingly caressing stuff, lots of people gazing forward with an inscrutable look on their faces.
Chop 10 minutes off each segment and Nostalgia would have been a better film. As it is, it’s a conversation starter for families and a reminder of the talents of its cast, but its lingering message isn’t that distinctive.