For most actors, getting a regular gig on a television show or a film series is a boon, because essentially you can make enough money that you will never have to work again. The problem is - most actors want to work again. When you’ve been playing an iconic character for years, it’s hard for people to separate you from that work, and so most actors will take on really radically different roles. And it tends to be a mixed bag as to how that turns out. You look at someone like Sarah Michelle Gellar, who hasn’t done a whole hell of a lot since she hung up her stakes. Or the casts of “Friends” or “Seinfeld,” who hasn’t really been able to shake those enigmatic personas - aside from maybe one or two small interesting roles here or there. And things don’t really bode too well for any of the children from Harry Potter, save perhaps Rupert Grint. Both Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson have been trying like hell to remind everyone that there will be life for them after Twilight — and not with much success. Much to the disbelief of the internet, Kristen Stewart isn’t a terrible actress, but she’s been making some terrible choices, trying to adopt some sort of badass persona by taking on increasingly rowdier characters. James Gandolfini was doing pretty good for himself there, with interesting turns on his bulldog Mafioso with Romance and Cigarettes and In The Loop. But Rileys casts both actors completely against their usual types, and it just feels like a giant game of pretend. Particularly when they are paired against the likes of Melissa Leo, who just runs away with the film. If they wanted to shake the shadows of their alter egos, taking on a Ken Hixon script — who with Inventing the Abbots and City By The Sea — has made a career of wasting star talent in directionless, meandering mopefests. Jake Scott, son of Ridley, doesn’t do much with the material either, banking on the performances to get us through. And while there are a couple of very nice moments, ultimately Welcome to the Rileys just sags like a heavy trawler finally dragging itself into dock.
If you’ve watched the trailers, they’ve conveniently told you everything that happens in the movie, which saves me a lot of time. Anything that might have been an interesting surprise or a unique moment gets spoiled both by the preview and by the obviousness of the script. It was like Ken Hixon used a template in Movie Magic Screenwriter to do “Tragic Family Falling Apart” story, and just plugged in the elements like he was putting together a Build-A-Bear for a child that doesn’t want to smile. Doug Riley (James Gandolfini) smokes a lot and is sad. His daughter died in a car wreck and his wife, Lois (Melissa Leo), has become rabidly agoraphobic. He’s been having an affair with a pancake house waitress for four years, but the daughter died 8 years ago at age 15, and they’ve been married for almost 30 years, so when you do the griefonomics, you don’t fucking care.
Everyone’s miserable, so when Doug goes to New Orleans for a contractors’ conference, he just wants to be alone. He wanders into a seedy strip club where we finally meet Mallory (Kristen Stewart), a fifteen year old stripper who offers Doug sexual favors in the champagne room. Doug has no interest in her sexually, because she looks a lot like his daughter. So Doug decides to take care of the foul-mouthed, sore-covered little strumpet and basically care for her like she was his daughter. He calls his wife and tells her he’s staying in New Orleans, and so she conquers her agoraphobia and drives down from Indianapolis. Confronted with the situation, Lois gets ready to leave. If only she made it, she wouldn’t have to suffer through the rest of the watered down plot where they all try to play house together. I could tell you how it turns out, or you could simply watch every other movie like this and figure it out for yourself.
It’s a pretty shoddy plot no matter how you slice it. The Rileys are trying to bond in a shitty house over a girl who’s riddled with pottymouth and pottycrotch. She doesn’t go off to school in the morning, she’s blowing weirdos fresh off Bourbon Street for $50. It would almost make sense for Doug to bang her, but she’s such a repulsive and self-absorbed mutant, it’s impossible for anyone to care about her. The sheer fact that he tries to go all Henry Higgins on a whore makes little to no sense. Even worse is that his wife is somehow complicit in the situation. And the sad part is, I understand where Hixon was going with this script — in that he actively seemed like he was trying to play it against type by not having Doug try to screw Mallory, and by not making the wife run away, and by not having them take her out of her element, and by not having Doug allow her to continue. Problem is the alternative to the cliché is really fucking stupid. And Jake Scott’s not adding anything with his direction, just kind of letting scenes flop along on their own faux film-school serious-face. If anything, I think he hamstrung what was already a flawed script with inept casting.
It’s certainly not buoyed any by the performances. Melissa Leo is scary terrific as Lois. Easily that part could have been played shrill and frosty. Instead, Leo plays Lois with these wonderful moments of sheer adorable naivety. Particularly in the wake of her hardass performance in Conviction. Gandolfini, god bless him, is breaking out that terrible countrified twang of his that’s just nails on a glass chalkboard. He’s like a bear who wandered into an office meeting. He’s playing Doug like the 180 version of Tony Soprano, and it’s obviously the direction he was going for. He’s like a weird Donny Osmond version of his usual brash Jersey, and it doesn’t sit well. I’m not saying Gandolfini’s incapable of playing nice or sweet or lovable, but this is such a phony iteration of that. And Kristen Stewart is basically taking her little-girl dressup version of Joan Jett and adding f-bombs and cocktalk to the mix, and it’s even more embarrassing. She plays Mallory like a naughty 15 year old, when this is a girl who’s been on the streets, who’s handled more cock than a lineman at Tyson Chicken, and who’s smoking like a chimney. Stewart doesn’t have the gravitas; she’s still playing Bella. And what’s weird is, had she just recreated her character from Adventureland with a little more edge, it would have worked. You just don’t believe she’s been down and dirty. And things aren’t certainly helped by the strange Natalie-Nudity on set. There are several scenes where it would have been appropriate for her to be fully nude, and there are instances where we do see half ass-shots, but it doesn’t help but make her character feel even more virginal. Which is the exact opposite. The irony is that I think this would have been a perfect role for Megan Fox, who doesn’t have the acting chops of Stewart, but would have been better.
If the actors thought they’d ditch their dopplegangers with these roles, it only served to remind us how much better they are as Tony Soprano and Bella Swan respectively. At least it showcased Melissa Leo and gave her yet another reason to start picking out gowns for February. I’m actually interested to see what Jake Scott’s planning to do next, since he has such a bizarre resume. His only other feature was Plunkett and Maclaine, and before that he directed the video for the Smashing Pumpkin’s “Disarm.” Welcome to the Rileys is exactly what you expect it to be, another one of those Sundance darlings that’s the result of overt hype. It’s another one of the dreary, melancholy, family rebuilding tragedies that always pop up around Oscar time, and it really could have benefitted from stronger leads.