Occasionally, Lullaby is the story of one particular family struggling with the imminent death of its mensch of a patriarch (Richard Jenkins) following his long battle with cancer. But for some reason, the movie can't live with being only that. Lullaby wants to reach everybody, to cover all possible constructs of the grieving process, to deliver the ultimate cinematic depiction of untimely death. In stuffing itself with so many varied elements, however, Lullaby feels no longer like the story of any cohesive family, relegating itself to an array of moments that you'll probably recognize from past films about cancer (or contemporary ones, for that matter) and recall seeing handled a lot better in those movies, to boot.
When debut writer/director Andrew Levitas lets his characters run organically, he earns his best material: Jenkins plays dying dad Robert Lowenstein with terrific humanity, holding fast to his decision to emancipate himself from life support while catering to the emotional whims of his reserved wife (Anne Archer), defiant daughter (Jessica Brown Findlay), and black sheep son Jonathan (Garrett Hedlund), the focal character in the story. Jenkins is the film's power source, peppering his slow drift toward the inevitable with good natured snark and some bona fide dad jokes — there are a few dynamite puns in this picture, rest assured — and instances of authentic sentiment. Hedlund returns the favor as the prickly runaway who has never forgiven his dad for getting sick, but pales in comparison to the soft grins of his screen partner.
If left alone with the simple grandeur of the above, the Lowensteins might brave a storm worth watching. But Lullaby compulsively tosses in an abundance of contrivances in a counterintuitive effort to courier the emotional reach to all audiences (or maybe it's just out of desperation for script filler). At various points in the movie, we learn about conflicts involving family inheritance, the Lowensteins' Jewish heritage, a hostile nurse (Jennifer Hudson, giving a performance that at the very least toes the line of racism) who is apparently the sole staff member in a gigantic New York City hospital, and Jonathan's relationship with ex-girlfriend Emily (Amy Adams) — a character with absolutely no place in this story — each introduced more abjectly than the last, and none commanding any presence of import.
The problem with all of these elements isn't simply their existence, but the insincerity with which they are all handled. Late in the movie, a conversation about an otherwise unmentioned automobile demands the gravity of an established metaphor, just one of many scenes that doesn't earn the catharsis it seems bent on establishing. The biggest culprit here might be the material surrounding Jessica Barden's Meredith, a cancer-stricken 17-year-old who the movie utilizes as Jonathan's Jiminy Cricket figure (taking form as both sage otherworldly symbol, despite going out of her way to introduce herself as "human" when they first meet, and a victim prime for the saving). Though the most egregious example of the movie's reliance on go-to schmaltz, Meredith is hardly the lone problem.
As a result of its proclivity to pluck away at the harp strings at every turn, when Lullaby does shoot for that real, it comes off as bizarre and misplaced. These issues notwithstanding, the rougher, more guttural moments in the film are indeed its most shining examples of humanity. If Lullaby were satisfied keeping its Lowensteins confined to the close quarters of Robert's hospital bed — fighting, crying, laughing at nurses, talking about baseball, dealing with (literal) s**t, and making dad jokes — we'd have what we likely came for: a touching, difficult story about people dealing with a true problem. But instead, the film chooses to favor of the big over the real.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter| Follow @Hollywood_com
Robert Zemeckis is a blockbuster director at heart. Action has never been an issue for the man behind Back to the Future. When he puts aside the high concept adventures for emotional human stories — think Forrest Gump or Cast Away — he still goes big. His latest Flight continues the trend revolving the story of one man's fight with alcoholism around a terrifying plane crash. Zemeckis expertly crafts his roaring centerpiece and while he finds an agile performer in Denzel Washington the hour-and-a-half of Flight after the shocking moment can't sustain the power. The "big" works. The intimate drowns.
Washington stars as Whip Whitaker a reckless airline pilot who balances his days flying jumbo jets with picking up women snorting lines of cocaine and drinking himself to sleep. Although drunk for the flight that will change his life forever that's not the reason the plane goes down — in fact it may be the reason he thinks up his savvy landing solution in the first place. Writer John Gatins follows Whitaker into the aftermath madness: an investigation of what really happened during the flight Whitaker's battle to cap his addictions and budding relationships that if nurtured could save his life.
Zemeckis tops his own plane crash in Cast Away with the heart-pounding tailspin sequence (if you've ever been scared of flying before Flight will push into phobia territory). In the few scenes after the literal destruction Washington is able to convey an equal amount of power in the moments of mental destruction. Whitaker is obviously crushed by the events the bottle silently calling for him in every down moment. Flight strives for that level of introspection throughout eventually pairing Washington with equally distraught junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Their relationship is barely fleshed out with the script time and time again resorting to obvious over-the-top depictions of substance abuse (a la Nic Cage's Leaving Las Vegas) and the bickering that follows. Washington's Whitaker hits is lowest point early sitting there until the climax of the film.
Sharing screentime with the intimate tale is the surprisingly comical attempt by the pilot's airline union buddy (Bruce Greenwood) and the company lawyer (Don Cheadle) to get Whitaker into shape. Prepping him for inquisitions looking into evidence from the wreckage and calling upon Whitaker's dealer Harling (John Goodman) to jump start their "hero" when the time is right the two men do everything they can to keep any blame being placed upon Whitaker by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators. The thread doesn't feel relevant to Whitaker's plight and in turn feels like unnecessary baggage that pads the runtime.
Everything in Fight shoots for the skies — and on purpose. The music is constantly swelling the photography glossy and unnatural and rarely do we breach Washington's wild exterior for a sense of what Whitaker's really grappling with. For Zemeckis Flight is still a spectacle film with Washington's ability to emote as the magical special effect. Instead of using it sparingly he once again goes big. Too big.