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film review

Amber Tamblyn in Nostalgia.

When someone we love dies, what do we have to remember them by? Mark Pellington's ambitious, ultimately failing Nostalgia tries to make a case for the things we can hold in our hands. Forget all the MP3s and iPhone selfies currently darkening the cloud – it's the dusty photo albums, worn-out records and boxes of junk in the attic that allow us to trace the ineffable path back to our memories and our grief.

This is a huge idea that almost no one makes movies about, so one must credit Pellington and screenwriter Alex Ross Perry (the indie auteur behind Golden Exits and Listen Up Philip, as well as a co-writer of a forthcoming Disney adaptation of Winnie the Pooh) for attempting to unpack the banal, horrifying realization that everyone you love will die and it will be up to you to decide what to do with their wall art.

While Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life and David Lowery's A Ghost Story employed haunting visual metaphors as a way to situate sprawling histories about families facing death (to cite two directors who did this challenging subject matter proud), Nostalgia's intersecting stories connected by the common thread of people deciding what to do with a loved one's belongings when they die feels, in contrast, slight. Only a few of the characters are well-developed enough to sustain the movie's interest, while the rest speak in obscure, poetic dialogue that repeats the central thesis ad nauseam.

"You will never replace your things, or your lives," says an insurance-claims investigator played by John Ortiz, acting as the film's narrative kick-starter. After he appraises the apartment of an elderly man (Bruce Dern), to determine which of his objects have value, the investigator soon visits a traumatized widow (Ellen Burstyn) whose home has just burned down in a freak accident and only has an antique baseball to remember her late husband by. (Allowing Burstyn the chance to walk the adjuster through the charred remains of her front yard is the film's rare moment of great visual storytelling.) Her decision to sell the object will lead her to a memorabilia reseller in Las Vegas (Jon Hamm, whose standout scene proves once and for all he's a great character actor, ready for his Coen brothers' close-up) who, in turn, must clear out his family home with his sister (Catherine Keener) before an unexpected tragedy occurs.

Many of the interactions feel ineffectual until Keener and Hamm emerge in the third act. Until then, Nostalgia is a tender but boring film at the mercy of its own big ideas. As a director, Pellington seems afraid of the profundity of his own subject matter and sadly never employs one of the great coping mechanisms of grief (humour) to enliven his material. By passing the baton between far too many thinly drawn characters (although you can't fault the acclaimed ensemble, which also includes Amber Tamblyn, Nick Offerman and James LeGros, for trying), this relay race of pain can be a slog to get through. He also exhibits the worst trait of any filmmaker – indulgence – by cutting to frequent "character in mourning" montages. His handsome actors (particularly Hamm) caress their parents' old blues records, stand in their empty swimming pools and haul their ancient mattresses out to their all-American pickup trucks like models in an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, but are never given the allowance to actually fall apart. It takes a stupefyingly cruel third-act climax (and the humanity of Keener) to finally give Nostalgia some much-needed pathos.

It's a shame, because more films about grief need to exist in the world. Cleaning out your childhood home, deciding what to keep and throwing the rest in storage is mundane and horrifying all at once. A pair of antique tennis racquets, a pile of old dishes, even a rusted can opener can be so imbued with magic and memory, it seems perverse to throw it all away – and yet, what do we owe to all this stuff? Nostalgia deserves acclaim for raising difficult questions, but a movie about how to remember our loved ones shouldn't be so forgettable.

Nostalgia opens March 2.

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