"Winter Passing," written and directed by playwright Adam Rapp, hinges on one of those far-out, fantastical premises that you just have to suspend disbelief for: An editor at a major publishing house offers $100,000 to the 20-year-old daughter of famous novelists for her father's letters to her recently deceased mother. Dad is a semi-sane recluse who hasn't produced a book in years, so a hundred grand sounds like a lot of money for his personal missives. Even if he could be coerced to drop in on Oprah, he'd never submit to the pre-show makeover.
The daughter in question is called Reese Holden, which, as nods to J.D. Salinger go, comes pretty close to genuflection. She's played, coincidentally, by Zooey Deschanel, namesake of the youngest Glass brother and an actress herself.
Reese is also a surly bartender with a drug and bad-boyfriend problem, and a habit of slamming her knuckles into a drawer when her self-loathing nears high tide. As she wryly reminds the editor, the last time her father submitted something to his publisher, the manuscript was "riddled with so many spelling errors his editor thought he was trying to evoke the ravings of an illiterate." To which the editor, a paragon of faith and patience not seen since the days of Max Perkins, replies, "I like to think he's working on his masterpiece."
If any doubt remains that we are operating in the sphere of literary fantasy rather than observable reality, this doubt is soon handed its coat and shown the door. Reese takes the editor's offer, then the bus to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where more references to Salinger await — though if she sees any connection between the family name and her father's erratic behavior, she doesn't let on. The once prolific Don (Ed Harris) is now living, for reasons unclear, in the garage, and pretty much drinking full time. Reese arrives to find her childhood home has been taken over by surrogate siblings. A former student of Don's named Shelly (Amelia Warner) and a man-childish former Christian rocker named Corbit (Will Ferrell), whom he found sleeping on the couch one day, now spend their days enacting scenes of family togetherness. Shelly cooks and cares for Don, and Corbit fixes the car, teaches Don to play golf (in the former master bedroom) and keeps errant Don Holden fans (Rapp plays one of them) off the premises.
But any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental — the world Rapp has created is an alternative universe where Salinger doesn't exist, but some guy named after his best-known character is living his rightful life. There's something about the movie too that feels as though it were depicting events belonging to a stage. "Winter Passing" deals chiefly in allusions and motifs — there are all sorts of threads running through it, but none of them really tie together. You get the idea that this is a sort of found family assembled from the detritus of older, broken families, but whether you're supposed to stick this realization in the basement or hang it on the wall is harder to tell.
Deschanel is a charismatic actress, maybe more appealing than accomplished. And her charisma masks a certain woodenness that, here, kind of makes you want to spray for termites, just to be on the safe side. Deschanel played Ferrell's love interest in "Elf," in which her deadpan drollery was the perfect foil to his oafishness. Ferrell has long since lost the green suit but not the wide-eyed, borderline autistic innocent routine. He blurts things such as, "God is my co-pilot." And at an open mike at a local bar, he freezes up while attempting to perform the Eagles' "I Can't Tell You Why" and resorts to playing a pre-recorded version of himself playing it. Next to Harris, who couldn't be more committed to the role of the tortured, reclusive cult writer, he looks like he wandered onto the set of the wrong movie.
Minor but crucial details remain murky throughout, making it hard to discern exactly what is going on. We learn early on that Reese didn't attend her mother's funeral, but this doesn't explain how she managed to remain ignorant of the cause of her death until she arrived home and read the letters. Considering that Reese's main complaint about her parents was their lack of interest in her, you would think that finding herself replaced (and her room inhabited) by a girl her own age who may be sleeping with her father might result in more than just sullen irritation. But rather than build, the tension gradually subsides. Reese and Shelly form a womanly bond, and everyone moves quietly toward reconciliation and peace.
Harris, of course, is in a different league from the rest, and his depiction of the tortured writer is remarkably well-realized, considering the nonspecific yet somehow overly familiar inscrutability of the character. Despite its limitations, there's something appealing about the world Rapp has created, maybe because it's both familiar and shrouded in a dreamy bohemian idealism. A portrait of grieving artists, trying to get back to the quotidian business of suffering.
MPAA rating: R for language, some drug use and sexuality
A Yari Film Group release. Writer-director Adam Rapp. Producers P. Jennifer Dana, David Koplan. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
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