Stand in the middle of a film festival and swing a stick and you’re bound to hit a movie just like “Winter Passing,” a moody, character-driven, mostly plot-free drama about a broken family trying to reconnect. It’s nicely acted, for the most part, but it doesn’t do anything you haven’t seen done before.
Reese Holdin (Zooey Deschanel), a struggling actress in New York City, is approached by a book editor (Amy Madigan) who wants to publish the love letters Reese’s parents — both acclaimed novelists — wrote to each other during their courtship. Reese’s mother died not long ago, and her father, Don (Ed Harris), an oddball recluse, hasn’t published anything in 20 years. The love letters of their youth would be huge, and the editor offers Reese $100,000 for them.
For Reese, the decision to hand the letters over to the publishing world is a financial one. She’s broke, the show she’s in is about to close, and she has way too much meaningless, drug-fueled sex with castmates and acquaintances. (Such is the life of a struggling New York City actress, or so I’m told.)
Unfortunately, getting the letters means returning to her childhood home in rural Michigan. She hasn’t communicated with her father since she left at 18; she didn’t come to Mom’s funeral. Her childhood, we gradually learn, had her competing with her parents’ typewriters for their attention.
Can you feel the angst?
Upon arriving in Michigan, Reese finds that Dad, now creaky and long-haired, is for some reason living in his garage, while an attractive former student of his named Shelly (Amelia Warner) and a bodyguard/disciple named Corbit (Will Ferrell) live in the house. Shelly and Corbit are devoted to Don, in awe of his genius and taking it in stride that he has chosen to live in the garage. Rather than stand aside while Reese and Don work out their complicated relationship, Corbit befriends Reese and Shelly psychoanalyzes her. They are a foursome now.
Writer/director Adam Rapp (brother of “Rent” star Anthony Rapp, who appears in one scene) has compiled a lot of details here, but many of them don’t go anywhere. So Reese rescued an ailing kitten in New York. So Corbit is a would-be rock guitarist who is also, we learn in one startlingly out-of-left-field announcement, a religious Christian. So some elements of Reese’s mother’s later life were kept secret from her. So Reese has a guy friend in New York who might move to Colorado. So what? So what to all of that. What we’ve got here are a lot of brush strokes without any picture.
You may wonder what Will Ferrell is doing in a serious drama. I’m wondering the same thing. He may have it in him to play a dramatic role, but this film doesn’t give him the chance. Corbit is written as a strange, idiosyncratic character, almost comic relief but not quite, and Ferrell comes off as just goofy enough to be out of place.
Amelia Warner does solid work as Shelly, Ed Harris is just killing time between real gigs as the nutty old Don, and Zooey Deschanel (Ferrell’s “Elf” co-star, you’ll recall) grows more appealing every time I see her. Someone give this talented, soulful, intelligent actress a good leading role in a major film. Use “Winter Passing” as her audition tape if you want to.
C+ (1 hr., 38 min.; )