In John Krasinski’s second feature as a director, no sooner have we met Hollar family matriarch Sally (Margo Martindale), her perpetually verklempt husband, Donald (Richard Jenkins), and Ron (Sharlto Copley), the grown son living in their basement, than Sally collapses and is diagnosed with an advanced brain tumor. John (Krasinski), the Hollars’ other son, a depressed graphic novelist trying to make it in New York, is summoned home and soon joined by his very pregnant girlfriend, Rebecca (Anna Kendrick). The rest of The Hollars observes the family members as they coalesce around Sally or splinter into smaller groups or pairs to conduct charged conversations about their work lives, their love lives, and their relationships with one another.
Stalwart yet yielding as the Hollar family’s gimlet-eyed emotional center of gravity, Martindale anchors the film just as her character anchors her husband and sons, infusing her scenes with a magnetic combination of warmth and pragmatism. The easy intimacy between Sally and her husband, sons, in-laws, and grandchildren makes them all feel like a real family as they talk back at the TV in Sally’s hospital room during a realty-porn show or fill each other in on family “secrets” that everyone already knows.
But Jim Strouse’s dialogue-heavy script does less well with nonverbal scenes. John’s soulful stares indicate that he’s feeling something profound as he returns home after a long absence, but the generic people and places we watch him observe offer no clue as to what he might be feeling or why. And when he climbs onto an old tire swing for an arc or two over a lake, the tiresomely predictable break that lands him in the water ruins the scene as gentle nostalgia while landing too clunkily to work as comic relief.
Many elements of this story ring true, from the way the men in the Hollar family are all a bit lost without their women to the unexpected decency of the banker who rejects Don’s request for a loan, which turns what might have been a standard rant against rapacious bankers into a more resonant story of a good neighbor reluctantly doing a tough job. Josh Ritter’s soundtrack also works well, his upbeat music and smart, literate lyrics about struggle and pain mirroring the feel of the film. But that ruefully honest tone is periodically drowned out by the blare of stagey coincidences. When Rebecca goes into labor as John is delivering a eulogy, or John happens to stop for a beer at the liquor store where his father is secretly moonlighting, the film pivots from emotional complexity toward sitcom-ish simplicity.