February 14, 2011

With Welcome to The Rileys, director Jake Scott has created a quiet, thoughtful, very watchable drama, a film where James Gandolfini, Melissa Leo (up for an Oscar this year for her work in The Fighter), and Kristen Stewart play a trio of damaged people all looking for someone to fix them.  The film didn’t set the box office on fire, but now that it’s on Blu-ray and DVD, should you pick up a copy?  Find out after the jump:

All I knew about Welcome to The Rileys when I stuck in in my Blu-ray player was that James Gandolfini (still known for his work on The Sopranos more than anything else, despite his consistently good work elsewhere as a character actor) and Kristen Stewart starred in the film, that Stewart played a hooker, and that the film had debuted at Sundance last year.  That’s it:  I went into the film a blank slate.  When I emerged at the other end, I definitely had an opinion of the film, but not one that’s very strong one way or another:  Welcome to The Rileys isn’t a “great film”, nor is it a “bad film”.  It’s simply an “above average” drama.

Jake Scott– son of director Ridley Scott (and, if you want to get a fun bit of extra mileage out of your Welcome to The Rileys disc, check out the behind-the-scenes featurette where Jake Scott– who looks just like his father– also turns out to have the exact same mannerisms as his father)– has provided a serviceable drama built around writer Ken Hixon’s script:  Doug (Gandolfini) is a troubled businessman, Lois (the great Melissa Leo) is his even-more-troubled wife, and Allison/Mallory/A Variety of Other Names (Stewart) is the troubled stripper/hooker that Doug encounters while on a business trip to New Orleans.

When we first meet Doug, he’s entrenched in an ongoing affair with a waitress in a local diner.  We learn that they’ve been seeing one another on the side for some time (they even have nicknames for one another), generally on Thursday nights when Doug’s supposed to be spending the entire evening at a local poker game.  Lois never questions Doug’s whereabouts, but we quickly learn why Lois might be more forgiving than the average wife:  she hasn’t left the house in years, the result of a crippling depression (and, one gathers, a bit of agoraphobia) that followed the death of their daughter.  As long as Doug allows Lois to continue her self-imprisonment at their house, Lois seems happy to let Doug come and go as he pleases.

In short order, Doug’s girl-on-the-side exits the picture, and Doug finds himself in New Orleans for a business conference.  Alone, bored, and still bitter about his wife’s disturbed behavior, Doug wanders around New Orleans until he comes across a seedy little strip club, and that’s where he meets Mallory.  Mallory’s even more troubled than Doug, perhaps even more troubled than Lois:  she’s clearly taking a fair amount of drugs, she’s turning tricks to keep her electric on, and she’s…well, she’s a hooker, and she’s got the lifestyle that that implies.  Almost immediately, Doug finds himself drawn to Mallory and tries to help her rise above the terrible life she’s chosen for herself.

If this was the story of Doug turning the proverbial “hooker with a heart of gold” into an ex-hooker with a heart of gold– or the story of Doug ditching his problematic wife for a more youthful, differently-troubled woman– the film would fall flat on its face.  We’ve seen that kind of story time and time again, and it’s long since lost its flavor.  But Welcome to The Rileys plays out a little differently than that, and the curveballs that it has in store are best left for you, the viewer, to discover.  Rest assured that it’s all well-done, but not groundbreaking, and that’s almost certainly by design.  See, Welcome to The Rileys doesn’t have huge aspirations.  This is a character piece through and through, and in that regard Jake Scott has nailed it.  If you’re hoping for something with a lot of sizzle, this ain’t the film for you.  But if you’re only interested in seeing Gandolfini, Leo, and Stewart sink their teeth into a trio of relatively interesting characters, well, Welcome to The Rileys might be just the ticket.

Me, I was mildly entertained throughout, but I couldn’t imagine recommending this one to anyone:  The script isn’t surprising enough to recommend to the people that like a drama with a few twists;  the acting isn’t flashy enough to recommend to anyone that wants to see the film’s three leads chewing scenery;  the film’s conclusion doesn’t pack a whallop, so you won’t come away from it with that “I gotta tell people about this flick right now!” feeling.  It’s just…there, and how much you enjoy Welcome to The Rileys will depend entirely upon what you’re hoping to get out of it.

Gandolfini is now known as Tony Soprano, but a lot of people forget that he was one of our best character actors before he graduated to “Entertainment Icon”.  He does a fine job with his role here, but I found myself waiting for him to simmer over into a boil, perhaps because I’ve spend dozens of hours watching him boss his way around New Jersey.  That moment never comes, but the performance doesn’t feel like it’s missing anything.  Much like the film itself, Gandolfini’s performance is just…there.  Take it or leave it, be sure to sign the registry on your way out.

Melissa Leo has a slightly flashier role, if only because the script calls for her to be a little more outwardly emotional than Gandolfini.  Leo’s up for an Oscar this year for her work in The Fighter (a fact that’s been sadly maligned thanks to the hubbub surrounding her self-financed Oscar campaign), and– while I haven’t seen The Fighter— I can tell you that she’s a helluva actress.  Leo’s work here is probably the strongest of the three leads, and it made me curious to see her in more films.  In fact, it may be Leo’s performance here that finally causes me to search out The Fighter.

Which brings us to Kristen Stewart.  I know that there will be a large contingent of film geeks curious to know if Stewart disrobes for her hooker-role, so I’ll go ahead and tell you that A) no, she doesn’t, but B) she does appear half-clothed for a good portion of the film.  Do with that information what you will.  For the rest of us– those who are curious to know if the girl can act outside of a Twilight film (where, if we’re going to be perfectly honest, we can’t really say that she’s blown anyone away with her skills)– I can tell you that she impressed me the least of the three leads, but that she wasn’t a complete wash.  Having seen a Twilight film or two (under duress, I assure you), I can say that Stewart seems to have just three or four facial expressions, and while she does them well, it feels like she should try and expand her repetoire a bit if she’s going to continue getting work once the last Twilight film wraps.  That said, Stewart pulls the role off, and I thought she was much better here than in any of the Twilight-related stuff I’ve witnessed.

The film doesn’t have much in the way of “style” going for it, but there are a few moments that are cleverly-edited, and a few musical cues that I wasn’t expecting.  It should probably be noted– for the mothers out there looking to rent something for their tween daughters, perhaps– that the script is fairly dirty-mouthed, and you will hear a variety of terms for the female anatomy before the credits roll, some of which you may never have heard before.  Beyond that, though, the film’s “look” is much like the script, the performances, and the direction:  above-average, but really just…there.

I’d be curious to see if Jake Scott could handle a big-ass genre film, something the likes of which his father founded his career on.  As of now, the only films with Jake Scott’s name on the director’s chair have been this and the little-seen Plunkett and Macleane, a film you totally forgot even existed.  Scott shows that he knows how to shoot some tough material here, and his scenes are never boring to look at.  But through the whole film I couldn’t help but feel like Scott would be capable of much more, and because he did a solid job here I’ll be looking forward to the day that he does.

The Blu-ray I was sent for review contains just one extra:  a behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of the film.  Sadly, there’s no commentary (I’d love to hear what Scott had to say about the performances here, or the ending, or any number of things related to the production), though, and– if you’re like me– that’s a deal-breaker when it comes to purchasing DVD’s and Blu-ray’s.  But then, I’m the kinda cat that will sit, watch a movie, and then watch it all over again with the director’s commentary the minute that it wraps.  That’s probably obsessive-compulsive and not what you do, so maybe the absence of a commentary won’t bother you.

Welcome to The Rileys is a good film, but it ain’t a great one.  There are performances here worth savoring, but the script never provides any moments that would lead me to recommend the film.  If you like dramas that are as dramatic as they come, this one’s for you.  Otherwise, you’ll probably want to wait until Jake Scott sticks his toe into the genre-pool…or maybe for the next Twilight film, if that’s your thing.

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