Tepid sitcom humor sinks promising ‘Hollars’

“The Hollars” is the latest dramedy with Sundance credentials and a story about an artist from a big city who returns to his hometown and reconnects with quirky souls after a crisis befalls his dysfunctional family.

Although the cast keeps things engaging, in an apparent attempt to offset the serious with the sunny, director John Krasinski sinks a potentially radiant thing by replacing true emotion with artificial sunshine.

Written by Jim Strouse, Kaminski’s sophomore directorial project (after “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men”) is a “Garden State”-like indie — neurotic characters coming together around an illness or a death, with the journey of a back-in-town denizen providing dramatic thrust.

Krasinski plays the protagonist, John Hollar, a struggling cartoon artist who lives in New York with his pregnant girlfriend, Rebecca (Anna Kendrick).

He goes back to his childhood home in Middle America upon learning that his bighearted mother, Sally (Margo Martindale), diagnosed with a brain tumor, has been hospitalized.

John joins ne’er-do-well brother Ron (Sharlto Copley) and their fretting father, Don (Richard Jenkins), at the hospital and quickly becomes mired in the world he abandoned.

Don’s plumbing business is failing. Ron, jobless, is living in Sally and Don’s basement. Ron has been stalking his ex-wife and their two daughters. John’s own former love, Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), just happens to be married to Jason (Charlie Day), the obnoxious nurse caring for Sally.

The film contains some moving moments. When John shaves Sally’s head in preparation for surgery — “I’ll look like Rod Steiger” (and she kind of does), Sally protests — it’s funny and gently affecting.

And when the previously unruffled Sally freaks out about her situation, it’s unsettling.

But such moments are outnumbered by sitcommy bits in which the filmmakers, counterbalancing the grimmer stuff, lay on feel-good shenanigans and sentimentality.

Unlike Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” which blended comedy and seriousness exquisitely, Krasinski and Strouse offer impossible-to-believe behavior, like John sneaking Sally out of the hospital so she can enjoy a restaurant meal, or Ron saying ridiculously racist things to Sally’s Asian doctor.

Potentially interesting scenarios, like Sally telling John she’s sorry she married Don, or Gwen revealing intense feelings for her former boyfriend, John, are dropped.

In the end, “The Hollars” is a breezily watchable but frustrating movie with a subject matter that demands a more credible presentation and cast that deserves smarter storytelling.

When Martindale is on (it’s a lot), even the weakest material goes down easily. She’s so good, you wish the filmmakers had made Sally’s personal journey, not John’s, the primary story.

Jenkins, as the unraveling Don, and Copley, as the self-impeding Ron, also stand out. Kendrick’s comic talents are wasted in a stock supportive-girlfriend role.

The Hollars
Two stars
Starring John Krasinski, Margo Martindale, Richard Jenkins, Sharlto Copley
Written by Jim Strouse
Directed by John Krasinski
<strongRated PG-13

Running time 1 hour, 28 minutes

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