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review

Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) and his young nephew (Woody Norman) forge a tenuous but transformational relationship when they are unexpectedly thrown together in C'mon C'mon.TOBIN YELLAND/Courtesy of VVS

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C’mon C’mon

Written and directed by Mike Mills

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffman and Woody Norman

Classification R; 108 minutes

Opens in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa theatres Nov. 26

Thank god for Joaquin Phoenix.

The actor, one of the finest working today, is the living embodiment of a high-wire act. Turbulent, wild, intimidating, Phoenix delivers performances so lived-in, so deeply felt, that each and every time he’s asked to do so feels like a dare we don’t deserve. Even, or especially, when the films he’s attached to cannot hope to match his commitment, drive and energy. Which is, roughly calculated, half the time. For every The Master or Two Lovers or You Were Never Really Here, there is a Walk the Line, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot or, yes, Joker.

And while I’d love nothing more than to put the new Mike Mills dramedy C’mon C’mon in the former category instead of the latter, here is another film that benefits enormously, but isn’t entirely worthy, of Phoenix’s presence. The actor makes the entire endeavour worthwhile, but substitute any other performer in the role, and the film would crumble completely.

Asked to adopt a lighter touch than usual, Phoenix stars in C’mon C’mon as Johnny, a lonely but passionate, intelligent and warm radio journalist who traverses America asking cute kids what they think the future is going to look like. (I think that NPR, or CBC Radio, just stumbled upon a great whimsy-to-the-max idea.)

After Johnny’s slightly estranged sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman) has to leave town to tend to her bipolar husband Paul (Scoot McNairy), Johnny is tasked with caring for his energetic young nephew Jesse (Woody Norman). It is a gig that starts as a weekend-long babysitting affair, but soon stretches to days, then weeks, with Johnny eventually compelled to take Jesse to New York and New Orleans with him to complete his radio interviews.

Aside from one unintentionally creepy scene early on in which a sloppily dressed Johnny pushes a microphone in front of a young girl in her bedroom, this is Phoenix in pure aw-shucks mode. It is largely unfamiliar territory for the actor – the closest he’s gotten to Johnny’s wannabe family man might be his wide-eyed Theodore in Spike Jonze’s Her – but he slips easily into Johnny’s heart-on-sleeve skin. And the actor is nicely paired with the young Norman, who tempers a role that could be ferociously grating by playing it just this side of precocious.

C'mon C'mon is a story about the connections between adults and children, the past and the future, from writer-director Mike Mills.TOBIN YELLAND/Courtesy of VVS

It is only that Mills’s surrounding film doesn’t have much to say, other than “look at these two great actors I cast.” Filmed, for no discernible aesthetic reason, in black and white, C’mon C’mon plays like a gentle and humane character(s) study, just one without much propulsion or tension or weight.

You can see exactly where – both geographically and emotionally – Johnny and Jesse are going to end up by the film’s finale, and while the journey is totally fine, it is not as compelling as Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women) might think.

Come for Phoenix, stay for Phoenix and maybe also Norman and Hoffman, the latter of whom bounces off of both her co-stars with a nervy charm. But everything else? C’mon.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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