' ' Cinema Romantico: What They Had

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

What They Had

“What They Had” opens with matriarch Ruth Everhardt (Blythe Danner), suffering from Alzheimer’s, waking one wintry Chicago morning by getting dressed and putting on makeup, as if she’s going out to dinner and a show, leaving the house and wandering off into a blizzard. If the scene is essentially terrifying, its presentation is quite calm, even beautiful, the camera low and looking down one of those classic back Chicago alleys, big snowflakes falling in the distinctive orange light as Ruth walks away from our view. It’s early in the morning; it’s quiet; it’s peaceful; it is, in fact, the most peaceful moment in the entire movie because from this point forward director Elizabeth Chomko’s film becomes something akin to a never-ending argument.

Indeed, once Ruth wanders off, her daughter Bridget (Hilary Swank) and is summoned from her unhappy marriage in L.A., recounted in a few brief scenes shot in Lite Fincher Blue to ensure we understand the coldness that has settled around her marriage, along with her brother Nicky (Michael Shannon) who stayed in Chicago to run a bar and look after his folks. And though Ruth is quickly found unharmed riding the Metra, her husband Bert (Robert Forster) refuses to concede that his wife needs assisted living, convinced he alone can take care of her, prompting infinite disagreements between dad, daughter, and son about what to do with mom. And though she might be the subject of the story, she is somehow never a part of it, talked about and dealt with but stranded on the movie’s periphery.

Shannon spends a lot of the film shouting wise, but few actors shout wise as well. And if his antics seem a stretch, well, reader, I assure you, had you walked into the old Cork Lounge beneath the Addison Brown Line stop, you would have seen this dude holding court on a barstool. Granted, he and Swank do not physically match up, but they emotionally go together. In frames, they often stand side by side with Shannon, the taller of two, lording over her, imposing a sense of their rapport, how he hollers what he considers to be the unvarnished truth, her looking up at him and quietly scolding him and then trying to re-phrase what he just said in a gentler way. The movie frequently gets by simply on the way these two interact.

Forster, meanwhile, channels the same grouchy air that caused his character to punch that annoying kid in “The Descendants”, effectively playing someone resistant to advice; you never doubt he raised Nick. As much as they spar, however, their best moment occurs when he finally visits Nick’s bar and simply sits back as Nick concocts a Manhattan. Here, both actors are fabulous, Shannon evincing a bartending craftsman at work, Forster pretending to have his character read the paper even as he side-eyes Nick the whole time, as if he’s a judge grading his son’s performance. That no dialogue is forced is right on; this isn’t a peace deal but an emotional armistice.

Yet if “What They Had” works better in its natural moments, the script only strays further from these as it goes along, falling back on narrative contrivance to spur the movie toward a conclusion in which Bridget brings Ruth to relieve the load Nick has been carrying. If Nick makes clear the arduousness involved, none of this appear very hard, rendered in sun dappled scenes and scenic gardens where all the preceding anger and bitterness does not get solved or even managed but rather melts away in a bout of mysticism.

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