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Review: Sometimes Always Never Slyly Earns Its Sentimental Payoff

The film unites its seemingly disparate strands of somber drama and deadpan comedy into a surprisingly cohesive whole.

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Sometimes Always Never
Photo: Blue Fox Entertainment

Right out of the gate, Carl Hunter’s Sometimes Always Never picks up signals from a Wes Anderson film. Across a scene that starts with a lateral camera movement and relies on precise character blocking within the conspicuously colorful mise-en-scène, Alan (Bill Nighy) mutters to a group of women on mopeds that they remind him of the cover of the Who’s Quadrophenia, before making no less awkward conversation with a stone-faced ice cream man. And when Alan’s son, Peter (Sam Riley), arrives to travel with his father to a nearby town, Hunter shoots their car ride in self-consciously fake fashion, with the vehicle visibly bobbing in place against a backdrop that simulates the passing countryside.

Such twee aesthetic flourishes recur throughout the film, and their overly mannered nature is in sync with some of Alan’s personality traits. Unable to let conversations stall, Alan fills dead space with a mix of trivial facts and empty pleasantries that’s as strange as it is exhausting. But after a few mentions of his fondness for word games, it comes to light that he’s the Fast Eddie of Scrabble, and suddenly his quirky habits start to make sense as a form of practice.

After stopping with Peter for the night at a motel, Alan lures another guest, Arthur (Tim McInnerny), into a Scrabble game by pretending to be ignorant about the rules while also goading his mark into a wager before unleashing words like “muzjik,” referring to an obscure term for Russian peasants. As Alan fleeces poor Arthur, though, the latter’s wife (Jenny Agutter) reveals that they’re in town to identify a body that may be their missing son. Alan is stunned by this, though it doesn’t stop him from pocketing £200 from Arthur, a move made all the more heartless by the revelation that Alan and Peter themselves are in town to view the same body, which turns out to be that of Alan’s long-missing son, Michael.

This sudden raising of emotional stakes after so much goofy character-based humor gives purposeful shape to Sometimes Always Never just as it was seeming too cute by half, with the confirmation of Michael’s death forcing Alan to consider his poor relationship with Peter. Compared to the film’s colorful production design and fussy direction, the script is understated, given its focus not on any larger confrontations between the estranged father and son but on them learning to give and take. Peter’s hostility toward his father, for one, is always tempered by some desire to make peace, even if conflict inevitably re-arises. Alan also makes an unlikely connection with his gamer grandson, the antisocial Jack (Louis Healy), over Scrabble, a development that should reek of cloying indie treacle but is downplayed enough for the bond between these two awkward but competitive people to actually feel real.

It’s this decision to undersell an already thin premise that paradoxically reveals depths to Sometimes Always Never that could have been lost had the dialogue and script been pitched at the same exaggerated level as the colorful and tidy visuals. Nighy plays Alan as a man without any dark secrets but still bears the burden of decades of regret with an air of dignity that peeks out from behind his defensive eccentricities. Riley likewise gives Peter more notes to play than that of the resentful son. A last-act lurch into mystery terrain at first scans as a step too far for such a muted story, but the film unites its seemingly disparate strands of somber drama and deadpan comedy into a surprisingly cohesive whole that earns its sentimental payoff.

Cast: Bill Nighy, Sam Riley, Alice Lowe, Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnerny Director: Carl Hunter Screenwriter: Frank Cottrell Boyce Distributor: Blue Fox Entertainment Running Time: 91 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2018 Buy: Video

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