Gabriele Muccino isn’t predisposed to directing against the treacly glop that is Fathers and Daughters’s screenplay. After all, anyone who’s been emotionally blackmailed by his prior Remember Me, My Love, Playing for Keeps, and the original version of The Last Kiss, among others, will instantly recognize this film’s canned and cloying narrative manipulations as the natural grist for the mill of the Italian-born filmmaker’s reliably purple style. “I shouldn’t have had that third glass of wine,” says novelist Jake Davis (Russell Crowe) seconds before plowing into an oncoming vehicle, killing his wife and forever fracturing his relationship to his young daughter, Katie (Kylie Rogers). Now, if only he could harness the emotional despair that spills forth from this moment into a magnum opus beloved by critics and audiences alike.
Muccino’s attraction to Brad Desch’s screenplay may be explained by his own pursuit of such validation. In a telling scene, Jake bemoans to his agent, Teddy Stanton (Jane Fonda), how the reviews his latest book, Bitter Tulips, received scan as personal attacks. “They just didn’t get it,” he says. If there’s honesty to how Muccino relates to Jake’s defensiveness, there’s only uncertainty in his failure to articulate the means by which, following a bitter custody battle with his sister-in-law, Elizabeth (Diane Kruger), and her husband, William (Bruce Greenwood), over Katie, Jake is able to write in three short months the very book, titled Fathers and Daughters, that successfully reclaims his Pulitzer-winning mojo. Jake may finally “hit the line of truth,” but if the film doesn’t itself, it’s because Muccino insists on presenting his characters as the comfortable lies that persist in popular Hollywood melodramas.
Fathers and Daughters splits its time evenly between scenes set in the past, wherein Jake struggles against mental illness, writer’s block, and the cartoonish world of class privilege into which his daughter is subsumed, and scenes set in the present, wherein grown-up Katie (Amanda Seyfried), now a trainee psychologist and social worker, struggles to hold on to her relationship with a writer, Cameron (Aaron Paul), who’s naturally inspired by her father. Past and present turmoil regard each other as if through a gauzy two-way mirror, with the filmmakers content to push the simplistic logic of cause and effect. The narrative’s emotional terrorism, guided by rhythmic editing and honeyed cinematography, is so controlled that it almost impresses. But to do so would mean appreciating the film’s weird reformulation of the Electra complex, which is compounded by the script’s slut-shamming of Katie, as something more than a sexist fantasy of salvation.