Ashby opens with its titular character, played by Mickey Rourke, almost plowing through a gaggle of school children as he keels over, in his car, after suffering a heart attack. The scene is indicative of writer-director Tony McNamara’s uncertain comedic vision, which seeks to wring awkward laughs from traditionally alarming or somber scenarios. Ashby is a retired C.I.A. assassin who—as he tells Ed (Nat Wolff), a high schooler profiling his new neighbor for a class project—“can’t remember the last morning [he] woke up with a piss-hard boner.” Having just moved to Virginia from Oregon, Ed isolates himself from a social life with his peers, preferring to bury his nose in Ernest Hemingway novels or pretend he’s trying out for the football squad, as he practices diligently in his back yard. When Ed catches his mother (Sarah Silverman) fellating her boyfriend, it seems nothing can go right for the poor lad, but McNamara characterizes Ed’s struggles not to understand what makes the outcast tick, but as requisite detail to inform his loner status, which finds eventual parallel in Rourke’s slumbering, mumbling former operative.
McNamara is more adept as a writer than director, giving Ed amusing insights regarding his classmates, like that their idea of history is “Kim Kardashian’s first marriage.” The line befits the film’s general sense of a present defined by hollow cultural machinations, a sentiment which squarely aligns it with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Also like that film, the white kid’s frumpy self-doubt is soon assuaged by a damaged MPDG-type; here she’s named Eloise (Emma Roberts), a chipper but lonesome dreamer who witnessed her mother suffer a cerebral hemorrhage years prior. Her job: an MRI technician. Subtlety isn’t McNamara’s strong suit.
Nor is reconciling all of the films that Ashby tries to be simultaneously. When Ed actually makes the football roster, his teammates, of whom his coach refers to as “PlayStation faggots,” doubt the shrimpy dude’s athletic chops, until he catches a game-winning touchdown pass and becomes the renaissance man that, deep down, every white kid of middle-class privilege knows he can be. The sports-underdog story begets romantic drama, well, drama; when Ed hooks up with a floozy at an after party, Eloise is hurt, quipping: “To the victor go the spoiled blondes.” McNamara then attempts to unite these points with the Ashby through line, which sees the retiree load up for a series of hits between pancake meals with Ed, though the film displays little ability to utilize Ashby’s violent actions for means other than high-concept fodder and out-of-place bloodshed.
Eventually, Ashby is no more than a kooky confidant, helping Ed win back Eloise, though McNamara does give him a lengthy session with a priest in a last-ditch effort to lend the shenanigans some gravitas. And, as Ashby decides not to make a final hit, Ed learns how to take one on the football field in a eulogizing final segment that further puzzles in its shedding of broader farce for rote sincerity, replete with an indie-rock outro and a pair of characters literally riding off into a Virginian sunset.