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.