Every now and again you see a movie whose problems can all be summed up in one moment. In the case of Winter Passing, the directing debut of playwright Adam Rapp, it’s a moment very early on when Zooey Deschanel’s character, Reese, takes her tiny kitten, who has been diagnosed with feline leukemia, to the East River and drowns it. Maybe I’m too traditional, but I spent the rest of the film waiting for the character to do something to make up for the “mercy” killing of the cat, or to at least change in a way that would convince me she wouldn’t do it again. That never happens. Rapp may think that he has shown us such a change, but it isn’t really there, unless you think that no longer being such a bitch by the end of the film is enough.
Deschanel plays the daughter of Don Holdin, a very famous, sort of Salinger-esque writer played by Ed Harris. She hasn’t seen him in years, and has been living in New York City as a struggling actress and an annoying hipster, the kind of person I spend many of my nights out in this city trying to avoid. She’s contacted by a literary agent – Reese’s mother, a famous writer in her own right, has recently died and left her daughter a box of correspondence with Don from when they were young. The literary agent wants to publish these letters, which would constitute Holdin’s (get it? Holden! Caulfield! Groan…) first published work in years. So Reese, always looking for money and sick of her life in New York, heads home to Michigan to get her inheritance. When she gets home she finds Don living in the garage, looking like a crazy man; Will Ferrell, a plausibly mentally deficient Christian rocker, is living in the main house and taking care of the place while Amelia Warner is the beautiful young student from England sleeping in Reese’s bed and taking care of Don, who is usually completely drunk.
The movie switches gears hard – Rapp doesn’t have his foot on the clutch and you feel everything grind as Ferrell is introduced into the film. He’s wacky from the start, talking about his karate skills and his rocking out – casting Ferrell may have gotten this project funding, but it torpedoes the film in a very serious way. Which is funny, because he’s the best thing in this Garden State-on-downers movie. Ferrell is being restrained, but he’s playing a character who would be wacky no matter who was in the role, and he’s just too good at that side of things. Part of the problem is that Rapp makes life at the Holdin house strange and weird, but never embraces it fully. Instead he seems embarrassed of it and makes most of the film dreary, and makes all of the characters people we don’t care about. And I don’t mean that in the “I don’t like her because she killed a cat” way, but more in the “I honestly couldn’t care whether the estranged father and daughter come to an understanding” way.
The film’s biggest sin is casting Ed Harris and then giving him nothing to do but grow a beard and wear a stringy white wig. Don Holdin is almost comatose with grief and drink throughout the film, to the point where I thought it would be revealed he had suffered a stroke or something. It turns out that he’s just depressed, and a failed suicide attempt late in the movie clears that right up. Meanwhile I remain unconvinced that Deschanel can carry a film – she’s very beautiful, but her monotone acting style seems better suited for a supporting role than the lead. Reese is a tough character to root for in the first place, and Deschanel’s subdued acting, which indicates an interior as flat as the voice, doesn’t help to let us in.
What’s strange about Winter Passing is how conventional it is. Sure, it’s relentlessly grim and depressing, and resolutely ashamed of its own opportunities for whimsy, but in the end everyone discovers love and understanding. Sure enough, Don has been writing a novel during his missing years, and hey – it’s good, and maybe even indicates that he’s getting soft in his old age. In a lovable way! And sure enough, Reese comes to like the uppity English girl, and Ferrell summons up the courage to rock out at open mic in his own special way, and they forge an eccentric family unit and everything is better at the end. Oops, spoilers. Rapp, it seems, needs to go watch some Hal Ashby movies to learn how this stuff is done.