Directed By: Jake Scott
Written By: Ken Hixon
Produced By: Giovanni Agnelli, Scott Bloom, Michael Costigan, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott
Cast: James Gandolfini, Kristen Stewart, Melissa Leo
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 110 minutes
Release Date: November 26, 2010
Review Date: November 26, 2010
Whether seeing him as a business partner or a father figure, it’s clear that, by the end of Welcome to the Rileys, Mallory (Kristen Stewart), the teenage stripper/prostitute, will call Doug Riley (James Gandolfini), the small business owner on a conference trip, “daddy” — or at least just “dad.” The setup is too pat for any other option, really.
Doug’s daughter died when in a car crash at age 15; Mallory is an orphan. Whether one calls it after their first meeting, when Doug turns down almost every favor in the book she throws at him; their second, when he pays for her po’ boy dinner (“How old are you? Fifteen,” he asks); or after he decides to bail on the conference, his business, and his agoraphobic wife Lois (Melissa Leo) in Indianapolis to spruce up Mallory’s dilapidated rental house in a bad neighborhood of New Orleans, one will — before any character even hints at it — foresee the subconscious role each is filling for the other.
The obviousness isn’t an inherent fault to the movie, which features a trio of fine, if equally obvious, performances. It doesn’t help much, though.
Doug is, like all middle-aged men in the movies, in a rut. His wife won’t leave the house after their daughter died. His younger woman-on-the-side, whom he’s met at her night shift at a diner after his poker game every week for the past few years, has died from a sudden heart attack. After spotting his name on a tombstone at the family lot — just waiting for his date of death to be chiseled in — he’s had enough. He’s still alive, he rebukes his wife.
The conference in New Orleans is a scheduled escape, so Doug takes advantage of it. Bored with the routine, he runs out for a drink at a strip club, where he tries to hide from his colleagues by going upstairs with Mallory. She thinks he’s a cop, with the way he rejects her advances, and kicks him out. Later, they meet up again by chance, and he walks her home. After seeing the squalor in which she lives, Doug decides to drop his life and help out Mallory.
He fixes her toilet, buys her new sheets and teaches her to make the bed, cuts the lock on the house’s fuse box so she can have electricity again. He stands up to her perverted landlord (who shut off and locked up her electricity when she refused to make a sex tape for him), counsels her when a john steals all her money, and forces her to get up in the early afternoon hours so she can go the laundromat. All the while, he tries to teach her about personal responsibility. “Respect your money,” he tells her, showing her how to organize it to count it properly. Call the cops or walk away are the only two options he sees after the robbery. “Don’t you walk away from me,” he scolds.
Meanwhile, abandoned with nothing to do, Lois slowly builds up the courage to leave home for the first time in years. Early on in the movie, director Jake Scott obscures Lois’s face far more often than showing it, almost as though she is, literally, the faceless representation of the life Doug has rejected. The dissonance of Scott’s staging and Ken Hixon’s screenplay is jarring, almost as though the whole script remained unread by the director or unfinished by the writer.
At a certain point, though, once Lois does decide to seek out her husband in the Big Easy, the wish that she stayed an anonymous symbol pops up. Whatever psychological strain might be attacking Lois as she packs up her suitcase, gets in the car, and tries to drive away is reduced to a set of bumbling, comic mishaps. She tries to adjust the automatic seats on Doug’s car, only to pressed against the steering wheel or lowered way back and down (the effort of fixing the seat is apparently so much that she falls asleep in the car). With that down, she starts to drive but has an accident before she can even leave the driveway.
These interludes do make Doug and Mallory’s relationship look better by comparison. When Lois eventually arrives (after a nice scene on the streets when Doug realizes he hasn’t seen his wife in the sunlight in a long time), Hixon’s script finally takes on a definite shape.
Even with a more focused third act, the writer/director relationship of Welcome to the Rileys still comes across as confused from what’s on screen, though. That and the work of Gandolfini, Leo, and Stewart as the dysfunctional faux-family don’t make the inevitable “dad” work, but they do make it tad easier to accept.
Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.