Twenty-six years ago you couldn’t listen to the radio or watch MTV without running into Pearl Jam. In the middle of the grunge wave, their music video for the song “Jeremy” played in such a consistent rotation that it was unavoidable. At the time, the striking visuals that recounted schoolyard bullying and its violent aftermath were haunting. So haunting that the film won Music Video of The Year in 1993. Thanks to that video, the film’s director, Mark Pellington, would go on to create a pretty kickass filmography.
Looking at his new film, Nostalgia, I couldn’t help but think of his enduring music video. It left enough of an impression that I rented his first film, Going All The Way back in the days of Ye Olde Blockbuster domination solely on his name. Not everything he’s done has been my thing but the end result was always engaging because of the music video sensibilities he’s brought to the table … Nostalgia sits in that category — probably in the middle. A classic case of intent trumping execution.
The idea behind the film is simple: an examination of our relationship with things and the memories they hold within. The film is almost like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and many films by Robert Altman, albeit shorter and not as engaging. The film begins with an insurance assessor (Joel Ortiz) visiting an elderly gentleman (Bruce Dern) who is in the midst of a dispute with his granddaughter (Amber Tamblyn) over the immense amount of stuff he won’t let go of. The next person he visits is a widow (Ellen Burstyn) who is still picking up the pieces after her home is lost to a fire. One of those items, a baseball, is evaluated by a hard edged Las Vegas memorabilia dealer (Jon Hamm). From there we meet the dealer’s sister (Catherine Keener) as they both go through the process of cleaning out their parent’s home of extraneous stuff while trying to be eagle-eyed enough to note which items are valuable and which ones aren’t. A few other things occur over the film’s nearly two hour running time that wrench the hearts of the film’s characters.
Based on “Jeremy” and my awareness of his previous works, I really wanted to like Pellington’s latest film. However, much I tried, I couldn’t.
Co-written by Alex Ross Perry and Pellington, the idea behind the film is worthy of excavation, the photography is eloquent, and the performances are good. It just didn’t seem to connect for me. Even as a series of well-intended vignettes, the despondent soliloquies ruminating on loss while long stretches of violins and pianos play underneath threaten to drain the film of its powerful capability. I’m bothered that I didn’t like Nostalgia more because it feels personal.
Critiquing this film is even more difficult knowing that Pellington’s film was inspired by the grieving process he went through over the loss of his mother and his wife. When the personal stakes attached to a work are made public, it makes critiquing a film, particularly of this type, somewhat awkward. That said, even though the heavy-handed maudlin shadow that looms over Nostalgia is appropriate, its despair feels mawkish.
I like quite a few sad movies, and this would fall in that “not a happy movie” category. I’d be fine with Pellington’s efforts if the manipulation, which every film on earth does, didn’t feel so blatant. Making a movie isn’t easy. Making a movie that seems soul-baring is even harder. Which is why I’m reluctant to pan the film outright. Still, I cannot fully recommend this film.
Nostalgia – Starring Hugo Armstrong, Shinelle Azoroh, Ellen Burstyn, Jon Hamm, Joel Ortiz, and Amber Tamblyn. Directed by Mark Pellington. Rated R