Mark Pellington (Arlington Road) and Alex Ross Perry’s (Queen of Earth, Disney’s upcoming Christopher Robin) new film, Nostalgia, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Paul Haggis’ Crash, is next in the line up of films exploring deep spiritual questions about human relatedness through the lens of mosaic storytelling.
It features a strong cast in intertwining stories including Jon Hamm as a newly divorced pawnshop owner, Catherine Keener as his grieving sister, Ellen Burstyn as a woman mourning the loss of her home to a fire, Nick Offerman as her concerned son, Bruce Dern as a man clinging to decades of material possessions, Amber Tamblyn as his frustrated granddaughter, and John Ortiz as an insurance agent who ties the random threads of the narrative together.
The film asks its viewers an interesting question: If some material possessions help us preserve precious memories, are they of a special kind of sacred importance? For some people, a baseball could just be another toy to toss around the yard. If it winds up in the dumpster in the midst of a move, it was just a baseball. For Helen (Ellen Burstyn), a baseball isn’t just a baseball. The ball on the shelf at your local sporting goods store is just a baseball but, after Helen’s home of thirty years burns to the ground, her deceased spouse’s beloved old baseball is all that remains of the life they lived together.
The beating heart of the film is exposed when Helen pays a visit to Will (Jon Hamm) and attempts to sell him Ned’s baseball, which is now worth $100,000. Will and Helen have a long conversation about the value of and life behind material objects. Helen feels shame at the thought of betraying Ned’s memory by selling the ball. Will understands and is probably the first pawnshop owner in history to tenderly hold an old woman’s hand as she cries over the baseball she is selling him.
While Pellington and Perry’s film asks really captivating questions and the film is gorgeous, Nostalgia can best be described as somber and plodding. John Ortiz, like a guardian angel, moves from home to home and becomes the facilitator of intense discussions around the memory and the true nature of “stuff.” Ortiz and Amber Tamblyn give the strongest performances, unfortunate given they spend very little time in the film.
At times, it feels like Pellington and cinematographer Matt Sakatani Roe are trying to make a really sad Terrence Malick film, and failing at it. I don’t know if Pellington and Perry decided that they were going to enter the “The Saddest Movie of the Year” Contest with Nostalgia but, damn, they could very well win. Here’s the thing about endlessly sad, somber films, however: if they are going to be depressingly tragic throughout, then they need to be very good, great, even. Joe Wright’s Atonement is a perfect example of this. It is depressingly morose and yet, it is tastefully constructed in such a way, that one still feels uplifted as they leave the theater. Sure, it was sad, but did you see that gorgeous and elaborate tracking shot? Nostalgia, unfortunately, doesn’t have the same cards to play with that Atonement had.
I loved Jon Hamm in AMC’s Mad Men, but I can only stand so much of him standing somberly in a gorgeous outdoor scene, watching the wind blow through the green tree leaves as the setting sun illuminates his magnificent jawline. Hamm’s storyline as Will is considered the primary segment of the film, which is a pity, because although Hamm is wonderful as Don Draper he has yet to give a truly great movie performance.
If you’re out and about looking to see a movie this weekend, I hear Black Panther is a good one. Skip Nostalgia and wait till it comes to streaming to make your assessment.