That Ain’t Funny

The Hollars, a film by John Krasinski and James Strouse.  With Margo Martindale, Sharlto Copley, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick.  *

The phrase I use for my title is one my son often repeated when he was four and five years old.  We had just moved to a working class Durham neighborhood that abutted a textile mill, and the kids who surrounded him—there were a bunch—were like nobody else he’d ever played with.  The phrase was one they used, with varying inflections, when something didn’t please them, which was quite often.  I heard it multiple times a day, and it often pops to mind even now.

A movie about a woman with a brain tumor.  Now that ain’t funny.

It ain’t funny even when the woman is Margo Martindale, playing the matriarch of a bizarre crew.  She’s Sally Hollar, wife of Don (Richard Jenkins), who has a heating company that is largely staffed by his family and is about to go bankrupt.  He’s just fired his son Ron (Sharlto Copley), who is recently divorced from his wife and fretting about the fact that the youth pastor of the local church has started seeing her.  He’s living back home, in the basement, which makes the fact that he got fired rather awkward.  His brother John (Krasinski, who also directed) works in publishing in New York but has come home to look after his mom.  He’s written a graphic novel that isn’t working out and has decided he has no talent.  That’s why he doesn’t want to marry his girlfriend Rebecca (Anna Kendrick), who is pregnant.  He feels he’s failed her.

Does that sound like enough problems for one family?  Even before Sally is diagnosed with a brain tumor the size of a softball?

Some of this could have been played for laughs.  Ron’s jealousy for instance—driving to his ex’s house to spy on her with binoculars—has comic potential.  But Ron is a complete doophus; it’s hard to believe he was ever any help at the heating company, much less that his gorgeous ex-wife Stacey (Ashley Dyke) would have married him.  And Richard Jenkins—normally a fine understated character actor—also plays a knucklehead.  When his wife has the seizure at the beginning of the movie that announces her brain tumor, he goes catatonic, and does nothing.  He had ignored earlier serious symptoms like blindness in one eye and numbness in her extremities, thinking they had to do with her obesity (?) and sending her to Jenny Craig.  At the hospital he gets into a slapping match with Ron that makes them look like five year olds, and goes on crying jags that are embarrassing and unconvincing.

We’re about fifteen minutes into the movie when we realize—by we, I mean the sparse audience—we’ve made a major mistake.

We’re supposed to believe that out of this maelstrom of idiocy emerged John, much better looking than the others, smarter and more sophisticated, hoping to have a career as an artist, not quite married but very much involved with the young woman who seems like the one sane character in the whole film.  Her family has money—they bought her a brownstone in New York for a graduation present—so in a way everybody’s problems should be over, except that John feels too guilty to marry her.  She even comes from New York to join them, because John has run into his old girlfriend who still has the hots for him and who happens to be married to the male nurse at the hospital who is taking care of Sally.  If all this sounds too convoluted and complicated to be believed, it is.  It’s an inexperienced writer adding more and more plot elements in the hope of more humor.  Instead he gets more stupidity.

This is Krasinski’s directorial debut, and apparently he was desperate for a script.  There’s nothing wrong with the direction, except that some of the actors way overact, especially Jenkins, whom I’d never seen in a bad role before.  The movie got so dreadful toward the end that I wanted to sneak out and hope nobody saw me, like after a porn flick.  I felt so ashamed.

That same son of mine, when he got older, used to go to the movies with me every Sunday, and our credo was that we’d rather go to a bad movie than no movie.  On Sunday afternoons we faced what we called the essential emptiness of human existence, and hoped to escape it at a movie.  If we’d seen The Hollars we might have changed our minds.

And that ain’t funny.