"NOSTALGIA" — 2 stars — Ellen Burstyn, Bruce Dern, Jon Hamm, Catherine Keener; R (some language); in general release
“Nostalgia” is a 114-minute film that feels like it could have made its point as a 20-minute short. Instead, director Mark Pellington’s moody effort meanders from place to place, lingering ponderously and leaving audiences with a message that feels a little too ambiguous.
Meant to be a meditation on material and not-so-material attachments, “Nostalgia” opens with an insurance agent named Daniel (John Ortiz) who has been called in to inspect the property of an elderly man named Ronnie (Bruce Dern). After Daniel deals with Ronnie and his concerned granddaughter (Amber Tamblyn), he next turns up at the aftermath of a house fire, where he meets a widow named Helen (Ellen Burstyn).
But right as we think “Nostalgia” is going to follow Daniel through a series of poignant encounters with various bereaved clients, the story instead attaches to Helen as she travels to Las Vegas to appraise one of the few valuables to survive the fire: a baseball autographed by Ted Williams.
Here, Helen meets a memorabilia dealer named Will (Jon Hamm), and the two have a touching conversation about how her family connection to the ball will be lost once it enters the collector’s market. And that’s the last we see of Helen, because now “Nostalgia” decides to follow Will as he travels to his childhood home to scour through his parents’ old belongings with his sister Donna (Catherine Keener).
Will is the closest thing to a protagonist in a film that isn’t quite an ensemble piece, and he gets the closest thing to a character arc as he’s forced to consider the genuine value of the goods people such as Helen and his parents cling to for years and years.
“Nostalgia’s” most poignant moment comes later in the context of a family tragedy that won’t be detailed here, but it might make audiences think hard about how best to compile family histories in a digital world.
Pellington’s film seems to have a lot to say about the nature of attachment, materialism and the difference between history and junk — and it literally says a lot, through a number of ponderous speeches — but the message never feels fully realized. Instead, “Nostalgia” seems to wander, unsure of where it wants to go, choosing instead to wallow in the sorrow of its characters.
Of those characters, Will's sister is given the most to work with, and though Will feels like more of a protagonist, Donna feels like the heart of the film. (Keener’s grief-stricken language is also the only thing that takes this otherwise PG-level film into R-rated territory.)Comment on this story
The wandering device — which moves from a focus on tiny trinkets to more meaningful things — feels like a nice idea that still needs a rewrite or two. Since so much time is spent on Will’s family later on, “Nostalgia’s” earlier scenes begin to feel superfluous as the film goes on.
Other films cover their stories in sweet nostalgia the way kids pour chocolate syrup on ice cream, but to Pellington — who also directed “Arlington Road” and “The Mothman Prophecies” — nostalgia is a bitter pill, tied to misery and loss. In this world, “Nostalgia” is a long drag.
"Nostalgia" is rated R for some language; running time: 114 minutes.