What They Had
2.5 out of 4 stars
There haven’t been many movies dealing with Alzheimer’s, but the few that have are all pretty good. The most financially successful of these was “The Notebook,” yet it was “Iris,” “Away from Her” and “About Alice” which garnered huge critical and awards recognition. All of them are — no surprise — monumentally depressing and, despite a handful of comic relief moments, so is “What They Had.”
For anyone who has ever watched a loved one taken down by Alzheimer’s, the movie might hit a little close to the bone. The award-worthy supporting performance of Blythe Danner as Ruth, an elderly woman in the late stages of the disease, is spot-on and will inform many that most victims don’t even know they have a disease. In Ruth’s case, she mostly thinks she’s still in her teens or early 20s. She refers to her husband, Burt (Robert Forester), as her boyfriend and her children as her babies. She also refers to complete strangers as her babies.
Ruth and Burt’s bar owner son, Nick (Michael Shannon), still lives near his parents in Chicago and has done everything short of forcing them at gunpoint to move into an assisted living facility with no luck. Nick’s close proximity and daily exposure to his folks has worn him down and his already wanting people skills have all but run dry. It doesn’t help that he’s in a (self-imposed) dead end romantic relationship.
This is certainly not the case for his sister Bridget, nicknamed “Bit” (Hilary Swank), who is living in California, married to a man (Josh Lucas) she doesn’t love and trying to maintain a relationship with her adrift college student daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga).
After a Christmas Eve incident during which Ruth goes wandering off during an evening snowstorm, Nick summons power of attorney Bit home and leans on her heavily to take legal action. In addition to Bit having permanent cold feet, Burt is adamant in his desire to stay put and maintains that Ruth is “just fine.”
A decent first film in a year full of great ones, rookie writer/director Elizabeth Chomko gets the nuts and bolts of the story lined up fairly well and draws out exceptional performances from most of the cast, yet the production lacks anything resembling subtlety, nuance or progression. She assigns single-note character traits to the five principals: anger (Burt), complacency (Bit), frustration (Nick), resentment (Emma) and confusion (Ruth), thus hamstringing any possible arcs.
In the place of growth are scenes top-heavy with shouting, finger-pointing, sibling rivalry and deep resentment of being told what to do against one’s will. Again, for anyone who has lived through this exact same thing, the plot rings true but not in an enlightening, thoughtful or educational manner. With one minor exception, we know no more of the characters at the end than we did when it started. It’s as if Chomko wanted to avoid talking about the disease and concentrate solely on its effects on others.
As was the case with recent first films from Paul Dano (“Wildlife”) and Jonah Hill (“Mid90s”), “What They Had” shows a budding talent not quite at ease with her own material but showing enough promise that we are very interested in seeing what she does next.