John Krasinski and Margo Martindale in The Hollars (Sony Pictures Classics)

John Krasinski and Margo Martindale in The Hollars (Sony Pictures Classics)

John Krasinski directs from a screenplay by Jim Strouse (Grace Is Gone) and plays John Hollar, an aspiring graphic novelist who works at a cubicle-job in New York City. John has to go back to his hometown in Ohio because his mother, Sally (Margo Martindale), had a fainting episode and is having tests run. John dreads going home, but his pushy wife, Rebecca (Anna Kendrick), books his flight for him and pushes him out the door. The unmarried couple are about to have their first baby, and Rebecca, feeling the maternal instinct, urges John to reconnect with his family before the couple starts their own.

Once John lands in Ohio, he picks up a pack of smokes, perhaps his first in years, so we know he’s dreading whatever awaits him. And indeed, the Hollars are small-town, simple folk who have hit hard times. Don, the older brother, has moved into his parents’ basement. Father’s heating and plumbing business is on the verge of bankruptcy. And at the hospital, the family learns that not only does Sally have a large brain tumor but she has been hiding her symptoms for many years because she was afraid the medical bills would be too much of a burden.

So, set yourselves in for a Middle-American-family-reconnects movie, the kind that marries the goofball antics of a dysfunctional family with dramatic questions like: What’s it all about? What are we all even doing here? I was asking myself the last question during the first 45 minutes, because the first act is a mixed bag as it misses opportunities to assert its tone. Why does John start smoking again? Are the Hollars drunks? Abusive? Racist? No, they’re actually more embarrassing than anything.

South African actor Sharlto Copley (District 9) has a broad American accent as Ron, the older brother who’s involved in a custody battle with his ex-wife. As the patriarch, Richard Jenkins (The Visitor), while seeming to be a pretty good dad, for some reason has the trait of having crying fits whenever he gets bad news. The tone of the movie—it has strokes of heavy drama and broad comedy—doesn’t hit its stride until about halfway, which is longer than most discerning viewers are probably willing to wait.

A hospital bed revelation from Sally sets John off on a spiritual quest for the remainder of his time in his hometown. He meets up with his high school girlfriend, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Smashed), who makes an overt gesture revealing that she isn’t satisfied with her husband and misses John. The many interactions John has lead to the film’s kind of subversive theme, which is that no one, not in small-town Ohio, nor in New York City, is satisfied with the choices they have made in life. However, the film stresses that learning to be happy with the choices one makes is better than making no choice at all.

More palatable than Krasinski’s first directorial outing, Brief Conversations with Hideous Men, The Hollars is basically a Lifetime movie that inexplicably wound up with an A-list cast. It’s a milk-toast family film that doesn’t have the bite of something like August Osage County, which is ironic because Margo Martindale was also in that film. In fact, all these actors have been in much better films and TV series. So, maybe it is kind of a treat to see them assemble for some lighter fare.

The Hollars is sprinkled with recognizable supporting actors like Charlie Day, Josh Groban, and Kendrick—Mary Kay Place even shows up for just one scene, as if she is the Hollywood go-to for ”Older Secretary.” Only Groban’s and Kendrick’s roles are anything substantial. They play, respectively, Don’s ex-wife’s pastor husband and John’s pregnant girlfriend, who could almost be a grown-up version of the same character Kendrick played in Up in the Air. In her first scene she pulls a rolling suitcase, which could be a cutesy homage to that film.

As for leading man-director, John Krasinski simply does not have it. There’s always been something just a little too ordinary about him to successfully pull off a charismatic leading man role. He’s that guy you dated who your parents totally approved of, but to you, he was just too safe an option. Here he can’t even pull off smoking a cigarette right. Instead of looking like a relapsed smoker, he comes across as someone who’s taking his first drag ever, and we’re supposed to buy him as a struggling artist?!

If you leave your pretensions outside the theater, The Hollars is actually kind of a fun family comedy-drama. The movie hits trope after trope after trope, but the climax and the last scenes actually come around and pull off the balance the first half failed to achieve. As much as this reviewer prefers harrowing family dramas like August Osage County, if you’re looking for a DVD to put on while you’re visiting grandma at the nursing home, then you should check out The Hollars.

Directed by John Krasinski
Written by Jim Strouse
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
USA. 88 min. PG-13
With Sharlto Copley, Charlie Day, Josh Groban, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick,  Krasinski, Margo Martindale, Randall Park, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead