Directed by Mark Pellington, “Nostalgia” admirably tries to be a solemn reflection on time, on the transience of our bodies, and on the permanence of objects. It’s too bad that in the course of nearly two hours it melts into a puddle of sentimentality. The film engulfs you in nostalgia that is not romantic, but stiflingly sad. Each space, tinged with blue, features wan sunlight to the effect of an Instagram filter commonly reserved for lonely beach photos, so indiscriminately applied in this film to the point of being clinical and counterproductively numbing. The film hinges on a theoretically profound, yet practically cringeworthy, question: “Can what we hold in our hands be the same as what we hold in our hearts?” (The answer: Obviously.) While nostalgia proves a worthwhile emotional well to plumb in haltingly profound moments, the film drags on. Every other moment is distilled, and every off-handed glance is made quiveringly and interminably emotional, milked for thematic reinforcement.
Screenwriter Alex Ross Perry weaves a structurally inventive plot, using inherited memorabilia of a constellation of connections among the characters. An elderly Ronnie (Bruce Dern) prepares for his death, seeking to eke out more value from his possessions from a kindly insurance assessor, Daniel (John Ortiz). “I’m not a relic,” he sternly reminds him. Helen (Ellen Burstyn), a grieving widow, roams the charred remains of her home like a ghostly gravekeeper and clings to a vintage baseball, her late husband’s most prized possession. She eventually, and reluctantly, enlists the help of Will (Jon Hamm), a professional collector who generously appraises the ball, and does some excavating of his own at his childhood home with his sister, Donna (Catherine Keener). Will spends a night there, cloaked in the past, and emerges more appreciative of the treasures he plies daily. While Burstyn, Hamm, and Keener convincingly and expressively portray their characters’ inner turmoil, the plot is too unfocused to sustain investment in their emotional developments.
The dialogue, which primarily takes the form of monologues, is riddled with grandiose, not-quite-poetic axioms (“My proximity to tragedy is a smidge further away than somebody who truly has to develop a barrier”) that undermine the raw emotional tenor of the characters’ situations. Perry spotlights Ronnie’s daughter for so long. She struggles to deliver exaggerated expressions such on-the-nose observations, like, “You outgrow the tendency to assign meaning to a piece of paper,” as if she were in an awkward audition tape. He could have more simply illuminated the sadness of generational change with more judicious editing, without peripheral characters who don’t further the plot in any way and irk with their dramatic trembling. If Helen’s drama unraveled more directly after Ronnie’s (who declares his belongings garbage), their deeply divergent attitudes toward their belongings would have created a thoughtful friction: They are both elderly and face lonely futures, and must evaluate their possessions in order to stave off desperation. But Perry drops Ronnie’s plotline like it’s the yellowing, primitive tennis racquet that Donna offers her disinterested daughter Tallie (Annalise Basso).
Pellington exhaustingly shrouds just about everything in gravitas. A slow-motion sequence of Helen moving through Las Vegas with her beloved valuables, ready to part with them, wilts with comically melodramatic editing. The camera looks up at her, tracking her as she appears to make a dramatic crusade through a hospital ward under time-pressure. A shot of her looking dejected but composed against an industrial skyline looks borrowed from a sad pharmaceutical commercial. Overall, the movie weaves together a lot of uncomfortable long takes and shots of crumpling grimaced faces—these oozily sentimental cinematic standbys demand the subtlest calibrated facial expressions and are at least successfully visceral, thanks to Burstyn and Keener’s aching enactments of heartbreak.
Despite the film’s superfluous emotional flourishes, the most poignant moments are mystically and simply experiential. In a particularly memorable sequence filmed from above, the bare mattresses, musty curtains, and child portraits on the wall in Will’s childhood home make the rooms look like those of an eerily gutted dollhouse. They suggest that stepping into the past with its rotting landmarks is disquieting, especially when tragedy strikes as it does in this film. In a silent tour of Tallie’s bedroom, Pellington also trenchantly explores how in an era of digitally curated personal spaces, a tangible private space accounts imperfectly for its owner in rumpled sheets, in bedside lamps left on, in haphazardly scribbled notes-to-self.
But the touching moments are too transient. The ending is ineffectually emotional, as Tallie’s classmate approaches Tallie’s parents with sage-like solemnity, and delivers yet another grave monologue. Pellington could have indulged the clinically detached, voyeuristic perspective that Daniel provides right from the start, his professional intrusiveness serving as an apt entry point into various personal stories. If Pellington had made the film a sparser version of the documentary format it resembles, tying up loose plot digressions with a centralizing figure and fewer characters overall, the ones given the spotlight might have revelled beautifully in more silence.
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