John Krasinski’s directing debut was “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men,” and “The Hollars” might as well be titled “Mundane Interactions With Mediocre Men (and the Women Behind Them),” as the Hollar men struggle to accept their fates in life.
Krasinski, who also stars, works with a script by Jim Strouse, who wrote and directed the immensely charming “People Places Things” starring Jemaine Clement. It’s clear in these two films he’s riffing on a similar character, a proxy of sorts for Strouse himself. Both Clement and Krasinski play NYC-based aspiring cartoonists daunted by the prospect of fathering twins.
Somehow, the deadpan radical honesty that constitutes the humor of both films just works better coming from Clement, whose dry and self-effacing delivery results in something hilarious and endearing. From Krasinski, it’s sour. He mastered straight-faced humor on “The Office,” but Jim Halpert let us in on the joke. John Hollar doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor at all.
Which is to be expected, given the circumstances. His mother, Sally (Margo Martindale), has been hospitalized with a brain tumor, his father, Don (Richard Jenkins), is in denial about his bankrupt plumbing company, and his erratic brother, Ron (Sharlto Copley), is in a post-divorce tailspin. John also initially doesn’t seem too thrilled about his wealthy pregnant girlfriend, Rebecca (Anna Kendrick).
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The always wonderful Martindale nails the tone in her warm and nuanced performance, combining sly humor and a soulful presence, while the men orbiting around her range from complete goofs (Copley and Jenkins) to self-involved and dour (Krasinski). These middle-class white male protagonists wrestle with the pressure to provide for their families in an economy that has left them behind. To wrestle with these pressures is to confront their identities, the expectations they have for themselves.
These men must rely on women, emotionally and financially, to prop them up, and “The Hollars” follows John’s journey toward accepting that. The film does want to puncture the bubble of these romantic Americana images — John swings on a tire at the swimming hole and the branch breaks; his blue collar father is constantly bursting into tears. The breakthrough moment comes when they relinquish their masculine posturing and sing a rousing rendition of the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine” as Sally is wheeled into surgery.
“The Hollars” flirts with the issues of class, race and gender that seem to be shifting too quickly for these men to keep up. There are few characters of color — Randall Park plays Sally’s doctor, and in his one substantial scene, Ron hurls Asian stereotypes at him, demonstrating his own small-mindedness. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is completely wasted in a bizarre scene where she throws herself at high school sweetheart John, and ends up simply a plot device for him to realize he loves Rebecca.
Krasinski and Strouse have too light a touch, bungling opportunities to say anything of substance by leaning on easy jokes and cheap sentimentality. While they might have a last name that roars, the film around the Hollar family just doesn’t register much louder than a mumble.
Rated PG-13. Time: 1:28.