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TUMBLEDOWN (2015) review

February 17, 2016

tumbledown
written by: Desiree Van Til
produced by: Aaron L. Gilbert, Kristin Hahn and Margot Hand
directed by: Sean Mewshaw
rated: R (for a sex scene)
runtime: 106 min.
U.S. release date: February 05, 2016 (NY/LA) & February 12, 2016 (iTunes, Amazon and VOD)

 

I usually cruise past rom-coms, but curiosity drew me to the charming “Tumbledown”, a new movie that’s being labeled one, but isn’t as saccharine or painfully superficial as the yearly Nicholas Spark adaptation. Yes, the screenplay has some familiar conventions of the genre, but at least the characters feel like real people and not young and beautiful or pouty and pining. What drew me here were the two leads, Rebecca Hall and Jason Sudeikis, both of whom I enjoy – the former I’m always hoping for a good role and the latter I often find he has more to offer than the man-child comedies he usually settles for. In this movie, both actors are good enough that they make us forget that the storyline is transparent – one in which we can predict the ending as soon as the two meet – and just enjoy finding out what they’re do with what they’re given. What they’re given is a screenplay written by Desiree Van Til, whose husband, Sean Mewshaw, makes his feature-length directorial debut, that touches on grief, a universal theme that should be handled delicately and is.

Hall plays Hannah, a grief-stricken widow living in small-town Maine, where everyone knows her and her late husband, Hunter Miles, a folk singer who had a cult following. When Hannah visits his grave, she passes groupies who had just adorned his tombstone with memorabilia (like a joint and a bottle of booze, which Hannah confiscates). Hunter’s death was reported as a tragic accident that happened a couple years back, but Hannah still has a gaping wound and is trying to honor his life by penning his biography. Who better than his wife, right? She’s not a stranger to writing, since she takes on random freelance assignments from Upton (Griffin Dunne), the local bookseller and editor of the town paper, but her endeavor isn’t going as smoothly as she hoped it would.

 

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We learn all this in the first fifteen minutes of “Tumbledown”, in which Mewshaw nicely establishes the characters, the geography (mostly filmed in Massachusetts) and the sound of the movie. We hear the singer/songwriting talents of Hunter Miles, which initially brings to mind Neil Young or James Taylor, but the more we learn about the deceased character, we realize he has more in common with the likes of Eliott Smith and Jeff Buckley, thirtysomething musicians who died too young, yet too old for the 27 Club. We eventually learn that Hunter Miles had left his urban roots to move back with Hannah to her hometown in Maine (where her parents still live), fell in love with the place and made a haunting 12-song acoustic album that reached cult status – which brings to mind Bon Iver, as does the voice that we hear which is actually singer/songwriter, Damien Jurado.

Hannah’s quiet life is interrupted by Andrew McCabe (Sudeikis), a pop culture professor from New York who rides into town on a motorcycle, intent on writing a book that would include Hunter Miles. His goal is to get Hannah’s blessing and gain access to pertinent info and interview those who knew Miles. We learn he’s a true fan of Miles’ music and that his project is more of a work of passion, intended to make sure the singer’s legacy isn’t washed away by current pop hits. When the two meet, their first impressions turn sour, which doesn’t help either one’s projects. Hannah balks at the idea of someone other than herself writing about her husband’s life and comes across as abrasive and quite rude, which finds the well-intentioned, easy-going Andrew to respond in kind with a bit of an obnoxious edge and snide remarks (something Sudeikis can do in his sleep). But we know these two will eventually get along just fine and there’s a curiosity that grows as the story unfolds, that has us wondering how that will play out.

Once Hannah swipes a copy of Andrew’s manuscript of his work-in-progress, she is surprisingly moved by how he eloquently he perceives Hunter’s music. Knowing she’s making little progress of her own, she reluctantly agrees (with some prodding by Upton) to hire Andrew as a co-biographer, inviting him to stay in the guest room (in the gorgeous cabin home she once shared with Hunter) during his Spring Break and – well, it’s kind of obvious where it goes from here.

 

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Although the two leads are surrounded by familiar tropes, what’s different about their characters is how the stand on their own as independent personalities and gradually/eventually connect with each other. Sure, they get on each others nerves at first, which is quite typical and also called flirting, but they don’t really need each other initially except to complete a book. Hannah is perfectly fine taking advantage of her “friends with benefits” status she has with childhood pal, Caleb (hunky Joe Manganiello, who attempts a hilarious Maine accent) and Andrew is currently dating someone (a wasted Dianna Agron “Zipper”) back in New York City. It’s their mutual love, respect and appreciation for Hunter Miles that blossoms something more than just co-writers.  There are definitely some humorous moments in their development, like when Hannah brings Andrew over to her parent’s (Blythe Danner and Richard Masur) house for Easter, but what continues to be the draw is seeing how these two characters slowly allow themselves to be genuine with each other.

It takes most of the movie for them to come around to each other though as they both need to get over themselves. Hannah is stubborn and guarded, preventing her from opening up to another man – although the pep talk she gets from Danner (“you need a little perking up” and “cut this long hair”) becomes grating very fast. Meanwhile, Andrew has his mind made up that Hunter’s death wasn’t accidental, telling Hannah’s father that he’s studied tortured guys like Hunter for years, claiming he was “textbook” for suicide. We know that’s kind of blunt, insensitive and ignorant, but it takes Andrew a little longer to realize it.

There’s a bit too much of the expected smart ass that pops up in the performance from Sudeikis and it unfortunately disrupts the nice guy Andrew actually is. This leading rom-com role is the kind of part I prefer for the SNL alum over the infantile raunchy comedies like “Hall Pass” and “A Good Old-Fashioned Orgy” from 2011. He’s shown he can deliver characters with a bit more depth and nuance, in “Drinking Buddies” and last year’s “Sleeping With Other People”, so I hope we see even more dramatic work from the actor. This role feels like it’s leaning toward that, but there are two many times where Andrew becomes comical out-of-character, making it seem like the actor is going there because that’s what he’s known for.

Still, Sudeikis and Hall are great together. It helps that they’re given clever and witty dialogue from Van Til to work with, which they make the most of with intuitive timing and mindful body language. I enjoyed hearing them talk frankly about grief and depression over dinner at a restaurant. When it’s just the two of them together, their interactions are believable and quite enjoyable to watch. Over time, both actors emerge as sympathetic characters (especially Hannah) and make “Tumbledown” a surprisingly touching and poignant look at compassion, grief and death.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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