(104 mins, 12A) Directed by Paul Dano; starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould
Paul Dano makes his directorial debut with this modest adaptation of Richard Ford’s 1990 novel. Co-written with Dano’s partner, the actress Zoe Kazan, it tells the story of a struggling family in 1960s Montana through the eyes of its youngest member. Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is a mild-mannered 14-year-old at the beck and call of his volatile father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal). Ambitious regarding his son, but lacking in self-awareness as far as his own career is concerned, Jerry gets sacked from the local golf club where he’s a groundskeeper. His wife, Jeanette (a fire-powered Carey Mulligan), holds things together at home, flattering her husband’s ego and landing a gig as a swimming instructor to help pay the bills, but when Jerry takes a job fighting forest fires in the mountains, she and Joe trial living as a single-parent family.
“What kind of man leaves his wife and child in such a lonely place?” muses Mulligan’s increasingly reckless Jeanette: one of several questions preoccupying the film. How much money is a man worth? (a question Jerry asks after being fired); how much love can a man express? (“men love each other, too”, he says, giving his son a kiss); and what kind of a man might a boy become with parents like these?
Joe is warned of the smoke from the nearby fires, which are described as preventable, encouraging the audience to sniff for smoke signals regarding the film’s central marital breakdown, and positing the larger question of its inevitability. Clearly, Kazan has the chops (this screenwriting credit is her second, following 2012’s Ruby Sparks), but with the exception of Mulligan, whose sharp-edged performance begins to overpower the otherwise muted, rather mannered film, it feels too neatly mapped as a whole. emotional eater who wears “Mold Spice” deodorant and lives alone with his pet dog, Max, in a cave on the outskirts of Whoville, home to a community of Santa devotees. Whoville promises festivities three times the size of the year before, but this film steers clear of any sort of capitalist endorsements. Instead the focus is on selfless Cindy Lou Who (voiced by The Greatest Showman’s Cameron Seeley), whose Christmas wish is that her overworked mum (Rashida Jones) feels happy and appreciated. Sounds like pure sugar, but really it’s just sweet.
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