by Jeff Meyers
For Americans unfamiliar with the films of Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda (After Life, Still Walking), his latest film, LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON is a perfect entry point. Not because it's his best work. It isn't. But because this patient and astute filmmaker takes a Hollywood-style premise and fills it with well-observed wit, knowing compassion, and emotional nuance. Two couples, one affluent the other working-class, learn that their six year-old sons were switched at birth. In a nation where blood ties, pride and honor have great meaning, the families struggle to decide whether to keep the child they have or retrieve the child they gave birth to. To say there were sniffles in the audience would be an understatement. And it's Kore-Eda's approach that earns those tears honestly. Confident in his ability to capture the quiet yet devastating consequences of his character's decisions, he refrains from making judgments, letting his cast's naturalistic performances to sell his sometimes superficial exploration of family dynamics. It also helps that he's cast what may be the cutest little boy in all of Japan.
All hail Jim Broadbent. He is an actor who is worth his weight in gold. How else to explain my affection for this prickly yet formless exercise in domestic reassessment. Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan play a British couple escaping to Paris for the weekend in order to celebrate their 30th anniversary. What ensues is a whole lot of bickering, reminiscing, and marital reevaluation. Think of it as British boomer take on Richard Linklater's Before (Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight) trilogy. But not nearly as satisfying, improvisational or naturalistic. Penned by playwright Hanif Kureishi, the script bounces from verbally witty and emotionally insightful to turgid and overwritten and back again. The plotting, when it decides to rear its head, comes off as schematic (a boffo third act monologue once again saves the relationship!) but Broadbent and Duncan gives such a wonderfully lived-in performance that it's easy to forgive the movie's missteps. And thank goodness for Jeff Goldblum, who just when things start to putter, caffeinates the proceedings with his turn as a smug yet charmingly charismatic old friend.
Pet Peeve time. There are few things dramatically cheaper than a director who withholds important information about a character – usually via flashback – for no other reason than to tease the audience. That's exactly what Jason Reitman does in his melodrama about an on-the-run convict (Josh Brolin) who takes a depressed mother (Kate Winslet) and her son (Gattlin Griffith) hostage in their home. See, Brolin isn't really a bad guy and, of course, his impact on this damaged family ends up being positive. But he's got a dark past... which is only finally revealed when... well, the movie starts to wrap things up. There's never a dramatic or narrative reason we're denied the full flashback, it just comes when Reitman feels like it'd make the most impact. Sorry, that's just shoddy story-telling. Otherwise this earnest adaptation of Joyce Maynard's 2009 novel mostly avoids the cornball pitfalls that are strewn across its path. The cast is, as you might expect, first rate, and does a great job of keeping us engaged with characters that are more constructs than three dimensional creations. Reitman pulls things in to give his movie a sense of time and place, constructing a believable world for the kind of story we've seen many times before (Clint Eastwood's A PERFECT WORLD immediately comes to mind). Only the ending derails into sentimental claptrap, dispelling the understated honesty that kept the whole cliched boat afloat.