It’s difficult to talk about this movie without a little gentle spoiling. Suffice it to say, in this paragraph, that it’s not a romantic comedy, it’s a family drama. It’s about real characters with real flaws who stumble through their lives trying to figure things out, and often making a mess of it, but they mean well. At least most of the time. They just have difficulty getting over themselves long enough to be helpful to someone else.
OK, now to a little plot revealing, most of which you can get from the trailers, anyway. Sam (Chris Pine) is a smooth-talking salesman. He says he deals in “bartering,” trading in excess goods and serving as the liaison between buyer and seller. But there’s a bit of the scam artist somewhere in that rapid delivery, and we find out from his unsympathetic boss that Sam is really living on the edge right now. That’s when he goes home to his girlfriend, Hannah (Olivia Wilde), who’s been waiting to tell him the traumatic news that his father has died.
Sam has lots of negative memories of his dad, a rock music producer who didn’t seem to have any time for him when he was growing up, and now Sam has reciprocated as an adult. Didn’t fly across the country to see him when he was sick, and now manages to passive-aggressive his way to being late for the funeral, much to the added sorrow of his mother, Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer).
Sam even has a hard time going through some of his father’s things, thinking he really should be somewhere else. But something life-altering happens when he meets with the family lawyer: He’s given a battered old toiletry bag that just happens to have a lot of cash stuffed in it, with a note attached to give this to his sister to help raise his nephew. Except Sam didn’t know he even had a sister, much less a nephew.
While people are calling from work threatening him with everything from firing to criminal prosecution, Sam decides he has to look up Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), who’s an alcoholic bartender (go figure), working double-shifts trying to be a single mom to Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario), a moody, quirky, sometimes surly kid who seems to get in a lot of trouble at school.
Sam messes up big-time by not being able to bring himself to tell Frankie who he is, but he acts like he’s really interested in her and her kid, and even goes to an AA meeting with her, so, naturally, she misinterprets. By the time he finally, reluctantly, tells her the truth, she has made a fool out of herself, given the circumstances, and doesn’t want to speak to him any more. And she, having first been only the love child of her father and then abandoned completely, doesn’t want anything from that scoundrel, either. She had to find out he’d died by her sponsor telling her that he saw the obit in the newspaper.
Sam’s relationship with his mother is obviously in need of repair, also. Family secrets have been coming between them for a long time, anyway, and now he learns she’s been sick and hasn’t been telling him. So now, after Sam’s tension of “How do I tell her?” it’s the additional tension of “Should I stay or should I go?” This is further complicated by the fact that Hannah has become thoroughly disgusted with him, also, and has gone back home. Now Sam has somehow managed to achieve the emotional baggage trifecta: All three of the women in his life are now furious with him.
But despite the viewer being frustrated by these continually unresolved tensions, they’re also what propels the movie forward. There’s some humor, but not much. There’s some language, and some “adult situations,” but this one isn’t about joking around and it isn’t about sex. It’s about real people trying to deal with life changes that really throw them for a loop. The characters are so real that you hurt for them. And then you root for them. It’s both gut-wrenching and heartwarming. But of course all the folks who go to the movies for light entertainment will take their money elsewhere.
Ronald P. Salfen is pastor of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.