You ever see one of those movies that you know is conventional, understand is nothing you haven’t seen before, but like it anyway? That’s The Hollars, which marks John Krasinski’s second directorial effort after 2009’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and is a prime example of a film that overcomes a fairly rote script thanks to an incredibly charming cast.
Krasinsky stars in the James Strouse-penned film as John Hollar, an aspiring graphic novel artist toiling away at a New York City publishing company and suffering from an overall lack of joy in his life, despite the fact that his longtime girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) is pregnant with his child. John’s life is upended when it turns out his mother has a fairly massive brain tumor, leading John to rush back to his Middle American hometown where he encounters his dysfunctional family, a high school rival, a jealous ex-girlfriend, and various other types of generic dramedy plot devices.
John’s brother, Ron (Sharlto Copley), is a screw-up who lives at home and yearns for his ex-wife and daughters, who have moved on and are under the surrogate father/husband care of the local youth pastor (Josh Groban). John’s father (Richard Jenkins) is scatterbrained and self-flagellating, blaming himself for Sally’s dire condition and striving to keep his business afloat. And Sally’s nurse, Jason (Charlie Day), is jealous of John because he’s engaged to one of John’s longtime ex-girlfriends (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whom he suspects of still being in love with John. So as you can see, there’s plenty of situational comedy to be mined from these various characters, just not necessarily anything you haven’t already seen before in one of the umpteen other “New York City creative-type must return to his small hometown to attend to dysfunctional family business” dramedies.
But you know what, it kind of doesn’t matter. Krasinski is so damn charming in the lead role of John that it’s easy to care about this guy, and as a filmmaker he’s put together a tremendous cast anchored by Martindale and Kendrick. Martindale has been a scene-stealer for years, but it’s delightful to see her take on a more leading role in The Hollars, and one that has complexity to boot. She’s always been a reliably incredible performer, but here she gets to dabble in the kind of intrigue that suggests you don’t really ever truly know your parents at all—and she’s unsurprisingly fantastic.
Kendrick, meanwhile, proves once again she’s one of the most interesting performers of her generation, turning what could’ve been a very one-dimensional “supporting significant other” character into something that more closely resembles an actual human being. She’s sweet and charismatic, but also has agency over her life and calls John out when necessary.
The film is rougher around the edges when it comes to the other characters. Jenkins’ performance is pitched a bit too extreme in terms of his emotional reaction to Sally’s illness, and while Day provides a few pieces of solid humor, his demeanor doesn’t necessarily fit with the natural quality that permeates Krasinski and Martindale’s characters. And while it’s nice to see Copley doing something different, the entire subplot for his character seems half-baked and doesn’t really result in anything substantial beyond “kooky brother needs to get his act together.”
Visually, Krasinski doesn’t get too bold behind the camera, and some of the scenes appear to be a bit overlit despite the warmth that the picture permeates. He may yet have something more ambitious up his sleeve in the future, but with The Hollars, Krasinski takes a more conventional approach to capturing the family dysfunction, keeping the picture character-oriented.
But again, these grievances are somewhat forgivable thanks to the overall charm of the film. As I was watching it I actively knew I was seeing scenes that felt by-the-numbers and derivative, but I couldn’t help but move past it and embrace the sincerity of it all. The final 20 minutes in particular are fairly predictable, but the emotional impact snuck up on me and took hold in spite of the narrative’s banality.
Family dramedies are a dime a dozen—especially at Sundance—but with The Hollars, Krasinsky at least crafts something sincere. Despite a few shaky performances and a lacking script, the film allows most of its cast to soar and gives Martindale the chance to shine in a leading role. It’s nothing new, and it falls short of profundity, but it’s emotionally genuine, warmly funny, and charming as all get-out. Sometimes, that’s enough.