LITTLE ROCK Middle age may seem like walking death to people in their 20s, and the opening moments of Jake Scott’s Welcome to the Rileys does nothing to dispel that notion. We watch as a heaving hump of an overweight white guy plays poker with his buddies, then repairs to a waffle shop to eat and flirt with the waitress he has kept as a mistress for years while his brittle, agoraphobic wife devotes herself to dusting.
We understand from the beginning their marriage is not just loveless, but airless - an emotional vacuum.
But, like middle-aged men everywhere, the guy feels stirrings, and hears the footsteps of his mortality. So it’s not surprising that, while on a business trip to New Orleans, this Midwestern Everyman manages to find himself in the company of a presumably underage stripper.
But Welcome to the Rileys does not go where you probably think it goes,and in subverting the cliches it throws at you in its opening half-hour or so, it does something fairly miraculous. It delivers James Gandolfini from the clutches of Tony Soprano.
Gandolfini owed much to Soprano, so much - I thought - that he’d ever be able to retire the debt. But he’s been chiseling away at the debt for years - he was the best thing in the forgettable Brad Pitt-Jennifer Aniston caper The Mexican (2001); he held his own with a top-of-his-game Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn’t There; he amused as the dovish (and duplicitous) man-of-war in last year’s In the Loop. While he’ll probably always be “T” to most of us, he’s a formidable talent who, despite the oblivious limitations of his physicality, has displayed enormous range.
And he has excellent support from the other two points of the triangle. If you know Kristen Stewart - who (do I really need to say it?) plays the stripper - only from those kiddie porn vampire flicks, well you don’t know Kristen Stewart. While The Runaways was a disappointing mild bio-pic, her Joan Jett was spot-on. Andif you saw her in The Cake Eaters at the 2009 Little Rock Film Festival (it’s unlikely you saw it anywhere else), you wouldn’t be surprised to learn she actually can act.
As for Melissa Leo, well, she’s Melissa Leo - she’s so good that she can make you forget she’s Melissa Leo. Honestly, she fades into blankness and then is reborn as a real woman.
It might have been enough for Scott (son of Ridley, and director of the under-baked 1999 period farce Plunkett and Macleane) to set these three actors in a room and let them have a go at each other, but Welcome to the Rileys supplies them with so much more - Scott’s low-rent New Orleans is authentically sordid, a morning-after world of littered streets and wreckage, and his film’s rhythm of revulsion, recognition and reconciliation is nuanced. The resolution feels true, especially in its insistence on gray tones, and the suspension of judgment necessary to provide genuine kindness.
This is an uncompromising movie about the compromises people sometimes have to make in order to save themselves - and others. It’s about doing what’s necessary and right, instead of what’s moral.
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 12/10/2010
Print Headline: REVIEW Welcome to the Rileys