Mark Pellington’s Nostalgia is less a living, breathing film than a presentation of sentiments revolving around a pat question: Are the objects of our lives merely detritus, or are they vital to our identities? Pellington and screenwriter Alex Ross Perry make their point within the film’s first few minutes and keep making it—establishing that, yes, certain objects obviously do matter to us as harbingers of the narratives we assemble out of the incidents in our lives—as if they’re the first artists to broach the subject. Nostalgia draws out a wisp of a premise, which might’ve yielded a skippable episode of The Twilight Zone, to nearly two interminable hours.
Nostalgia rekindles a trope familiar to a strain of ’90s films, using various totems to unite narrative strands, with characters handing things off to one another as emphatic batons. Daniel (John Ortiz) is an insurance assessor who’s presented as a sort of guardian angel, listening to bereaved people as they explain how their lives reached a point of desolation. Ronald (Bruce Dern) refuses to sift through the heaps of bric-a-brac in his home for valuables, which offends his granddaughter, Bethany (Amber Tamblyn), who takes the old man’s stubbornness as a personal slight. Daniel’s separate conversations with Ronald and Bethany are basically the same, mulling the existential weight of our collectibles. Daniel later encounters Helen (Ellen Burstyn), who lost her home in a fire. Standing over the charred remains of her house, they discuss a prized baseball that’s been passed down through several generations of her husband’s family, which she eventually sells to a professional collector, Will (Jon Hamm), who works through his own misery and regret, such as his unresolved feelings over an ex-wife.
Certain images in the film are memorable, such as Will’s lingering glance at an empty, leaf-strewn swimming pool, which may inspire your longing for an adaptation of John Cheever’s The Swimmer with Hamm in the title role. But the lush, presentational compositions often bluntly telegraph the characters’ heartbreaks. Pellington holds on to close-ups of his actors’ anguished faces for too long, while indulging slow-motion passages accompanied by soliloquys with howlers such as “Can what we hold in our hands be the same as what we hold in our hearts?” The film regards its platitudes with almost religious solemnity, never affirming them with behavioral specificity. Every scene simultaneously feels like an introduction and a climax.
Nostalgia has no subtext or sense of play or discovery. It never occurs to the film, for instance, to make light of the comically naïve idea of an insurance assessor as a roundabout family psychiatrist. Every character is a suffering saint, and every scene concerns people’s attachments to things that trigger past moments. Pellington and Perry never casually observe the characters’ relationships, rushing through catharses with dialogue that summarizes incidents in declarative bullet points. Only a few moments resound with something like authentic feeling, such as a couple of punchy interludes between Will and his older sister, Donna (Catherine Kenner), and any scene with James Le Gros as Donna’s gaunt and haunted husband.
One wouldn’t know from Nostalgia that Perry is one of the most audacious and perceptive filmmakers working today. His talent is antithetical to the obvious intentions of this film, as he’s a specialist in dramatizing the prickly contours of privileged life. Nostalgia is a theme of all of Perry’s own films, which deconstruct myopia and heartbreak with the precision of mathematical equations, creating intensely specific subjective realms. Perry spins tragedies in comic clothing, embracing misdirection and irresolution that allows the films to breathe with spontaneity. In the context of Perry’s other work, the sledgehammer preachiness of Nostalgia almost scans as a failed hipster joke.