Pub date January 7, 2009
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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It seems inevitable that no matter how admired and lauded the actor, a time comes sooner or later when there ain’t much left but the Crotchety Comedy Coot roles. Some, like Peter O’Toole, Helen Hayes, Walter Matthau, or Maggie Smith, build entire second-act careers out of them; others are dragged kicking and screaming into those twinkle-eyed support slots. (You’ve got to respect Glenda Jackson, who quit acting for politics at age 55, snorting "I don’t fancy hanging around to play Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. Life’s too short.")

Not all such parts are demeaning. But there often is something bleak about seeing actors of great range reduced to formula cuteness and sentimentality — the kind of emotional marks that often make old people on screen roughly equivalent to doggie reaction shots.

Perhaps the biggest wallow of this type since 1988’s Cocoon: The Return is now upon us in How About You, a crusty codgerfest that’s like tapioca for the soul. It’s the kind of "crowd-pleasing" movie a particular crowd likes no matter how poorly it’s made (and it is poorly made), because it gives you exactly what’s expected, on cue: broad geezers-behaving-badly laughs, canned nostalgia, a maudlin turn or three and plenty of forced joie de vivre, all enacted in handsome Tourist Board settings by comfortingly familiar faces.

Trouble is, when the familiar faces are ones you still vividly remember as, say, Vera Drake, or Christy Brown’s mum, or — yeesh, where to even begin with Vanessa Redgrave, possible Greatest Actress of Her Generation? — such innocuous matinee fluff can start smelling like a form of hazardous waste.

A terribly picturesque Irish country estate is the site for an elderly care facility run by a young widow, Kate (Orla Brady). Like managing a B and B, it’s one of those neverending jobs, made worse here by four residents so obnoxious they’ve sent some other patrons scurrying for other accommodations. The culprits: grandiose retired showgirl Georgia (Redgrave); sobered up but still fight-picking jerk ex-judge Donald (Joss Ackland); and gnomish sisters Hazel (Imelda Staunton) and Heather (Brenda Fricker), a disagreeable society of two who are really too young to be here. But the latter have led such a sheltered life that once their mother died, they opted to find another hole to hide in rather than face the outside world. It’s not the world’s loss.

A rather humorless workaholic, Kate isn’t all that happy when her perpetually footloose younger sister Ellie (Hayley Atwell) turns up wanting short-term employment to fund another global party trot. After a distressingly long time spent on narrative dead ends, disconnects, and anecdotal errata unhelped by Anthony Byrne’s direction, the screenplay by Jean Pasley — based on a short story by Maeve Binchy, and you can really feel that original material stretching thin — finally locates a plot engine. This occurs when a family emergency forces Kate to leave over the holidays, when all staff and residents have briefly disappeared back into family life.

All save the quarrelsome quartet, of course, whom no one will have. So it falls to inexperienced, irresponsible Ellie to tend this impossible lot (who don’t even like each other) by herself. Naturally it all goes hilariously horribly … and then life-affirmingly wonderfully! Awww. Yes, there is geriatric dancing and snowball-throwing.

The dears!

Binchy is Ireland’s most popular living author; one gleans her work is more of the Literary Tea Cozy than Booker-winning type. (A quote on her latest: "Only a curmudgeon could resist this master of cheerful, sit-by-the-fire comfort.") Still, it can’t be her fault that much of How About You handles its uncomplicated agenda so sloppily, with some scenes that appear missing (particularly those involving Ellie’s off-screen boyfriend) while others meander pointlessly. Why do the seasons seem to change from scene to scene? Irish weather is changeable — but not that changeable.

Of course the old and not-so-old pros ably ham it up in the desired "colorful" fashion. But these actors can do just about anything — watching them asked to do so little, for so little real reward, is dispiriting. Hearing Redgrave bray the titular Tin Pan Alley standard over and over, gowned and painted like a drag queen’s Cruella De Vil, is somehow ever so much less fun than that might sound. Could be worse: she could be doing Nunsense. Or Juliet’s Nurse.

HOW ABOUT YOU opens Fri/9 in Bay Area theaters.