2½ stars (out of four)
Adam Rapp's quiet, melancholy "Winter Passing" is the kind of movie that's most difficult to write about, because it's just OK. Not great. Not awful. Not particularly memorable. Not entirely forgettable. Just OK.
With less overt indie pretense, less drama and less entertainment than the similarly plotted "Garden State," "Winter Passing" tells the homecoming story of Reese Holden (Zooey Deschanel), a struggling New York actress who uses sex, drugs, sarcasm and self-mutilation to stay afloat, barely, in Rapp's city of lonely, severed souls. Reese is the tortured daughter of tortured writers. Her father Don (Ed Harris, wearing a tragic wig) hasn't finished a book in years ("his editor thought his was trying to capture the voice of an illiterate," Reese says of her dad's unfinished novel) and her mother is dead. Suicide.
Reese hasn't been home to Michigan in years, not even for her mom's funeral. But when a literary agent approaches the prodigal daughter about her parents' love letters--bequeathed to Reese in her mom's will and worth $100,000 to East Coast publishers--she makes the long trek home, snorting coke in the bus bathroom and rubbing her nose all the way to the U.P.
All those miles covered, it's hardly a spoiler to foresee that Reese is going to find something surprising in Michigan and return to New York at the end of the film a different, better woman. Done and done. So if you know where it's going, "Winter Passing" is about the journey.
Back in the Midwest, Reese finds her dad living, unkempt and unhealthy, in the unattached garage and two strangers in her childhood home: Shelly (Amelia Warner), an attractive, young former grad student of Don's, and Corbit (Will Ferrell, stretching well enough), a shy, gentle musician with a bad case of stage fright who wears thick black eyeliner and used to play Christian rock. Corbit showed up on Don's couch one day, a complete stranger, and never left.
Rapp, a respected playwright and first-time filmmaker (not to be confused with his brother, Anthony "Rent" Rapp, appearing here briefly as an MFA student who hikes all the way from Iowa just to meet Don), made his best decision in casting the doll-faced Deschanel, also in "Failure to Launch" this week, who turns in a completely unsentimental yet sharp and emotional performance as a girl gone cold almost.
Reese is in the habit of intentionally slamming drawers shut on her hand, and Deschanel pulls this off without a false note, never exactly enjoying the self-inflicted pain but never exactly ashamed.
There are some beautiful moments here, especially a hospital weeper between dad and daughter. But midway through, Rapp loses momentum, failing to hone in on just what kind of movie he wants to make, and "Winter Passing" languishes in that no-man's land between tiny, meandering, indie drama and plotted, pointed family melodrama. (I missed Rapp's world premiere production of "Red Light Winter" last year at Steppenwolf's Garage Theatre, but on the page that play also lost steam toward the end.)
With his well-crafted script and literary eye, Rapp could taken "Winter Passing" in either direction successfully. And if not, he'd debut a noble bomb. Instead, he closes with a predictable and overused Shins song, and his first film is well see above.
Written and directed by Adam Rapp; photographed by Terry Stacey; edited by Meg Reticker; production designed by David Korins; music by John Kimbrough; produced by P. Jennifer Dana and David Koplan. A Yari Film Group release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:38. MPAA rating: R (language, some drug use and sexuality).
Reese Holden - Zooey Deschanel
Don Holden - Ed Harris
Shelly - Amelia Warner
Corbit - Will FerrellCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun