There are many things a protagonist can do to elicit audience empathy, but drowning a kitten by stuffing it in a duffle bag and tossing it into the Hudson River—even if the cat was sick with feline leukemia, thereby making the act akin to a mercy killing—isn’t one of them. Nonetheless, Adam Rapp’s Winter Passing vainly attempts this feat, using surly Manhattan stage actress Reese’s (Zooey Deschanel) dispatching of her pet as a sign of her festering emotional distress brought about by an unhappy upbringing at the hands of cold, detached literary giant parents.
After failing to attend her mother’s funeral, Reese is visited by a publisher (Amy Madigan) who offers to purchase a collection of intimate letters between Reese’s mother and washed-up novelist father (Ed Harris), inspiring the wayward daughter to return home to Michigan, where she discovers an eccentric situation in which her alcoholic father is cared for by British former student Shelly (Amelia Warner) and shy handyman and once Christian rocker Corbit (Will Ferrell). As conceptualized by playwright and first-time director Rapp, Reese’s homecoming is a ploddingly straightforward attempt at personal and familial reconciliation, her resentment over her inadequate father’s new surrogate brood manifesting itself in predictable ways: Reese spars with Shelly (her cockney doppelganger), encourages Corbitt to open up, and vents her pent-up bitterness at Dad, all while trying to maximize every last grain of her rapidly dwindling stash of blow.
From its cast’s passably nuanced, low-key performances (save for a game Harris, stuck in the thanklessly schematic role of miserable old Marxist genius) to Rapp’s unassuming direction (full of bleak December tones and plain compositions), the film delivers nothing more than a familiar Sundance-style brand of stagy, small-scale drama. Thematic currents, symbolic gestures and emotional payoffs are all neatly laid out, a structural tidiness less in evidence during the filmmaker’s strained attempts to interject humor into the dreary proceedings; Ferrell may dutifully keep a lid on his manic freak-outs as the odd, internalized Corbit, but his random stabs at joviality awkwardly crash against the story’s pervasive moroseness. But unfortunately, even though it’s slightly more comfortable being earnest than amusing, this stilted portrait of reunion and resolution still holds nary a narrative or emotional surprise that isn’t telegraphed from three states away.