The Hollars is a disarmingly modest movie, and if it’s a bit more modest than we would like, it compensates by being just as disarming as we need it to be. Writer Jim Strouse dresses up the clichés of dysfunctional-family indie comedy-dramas for one more promenade around the floor, and director John Krasinski and a cast of welcome faces step lively through their paces and provide enjoyable company.
Krasinski also plays John Hollar, a small-town transplant to New York and aspiring graphic novelist working in a clerical cubicle and waffling about whether he’s really ready to marry his pregnant girlfriend Becca (Anna Kendrick). It’s the central role but no star turn, not in a movie that’s this much of an ensemble effort.
John gets word that his mother Sally (Margo Martindale) has had a seizure while curling her hair that morning, and it looks like she has an advanced brain tumor. Rushing to her hospital bedside back in Ohio, he joins his father Don (Richard Jenkins), a local heating-and-plumbing contractor teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and, now, emotional collapse; and older brother Ron (Sharlto Copley), divorced for several years and an emotional basket case himself, living in Mom and Dad’s basement, unemployed and sorry for how his life is turning out.
The movie’s tight little cast is rounded out by Randall Park as Sally’s doctor, Ashley Dyke as Ron’s ex-wife Stacey, Josh Groban as Stacey’s new boyfriend Dan, Mary Kay Place as Don’s sister Pam—and last but not least, Charlie Day as Sally’s nurse Jason, a high school classmate of John’s with a pugnaciously jealous streak because he’s now married to John’s old girlfriend Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
There are so few surprises in Strouse’s script that it’s best not to know too much about how these characters mix and mingle as Mother Hollar prepares for her surgery at the end of the week; even to hint too strongly is to make developments sound more like clichés than they play; Strouse is always giving his dialogue odd little quirks and tics that keep it veering away from triteness into something more fresh and unexpected.
Krasinski’s direction is a good match. He handles the material gently, as if he knows how delicate the balance is. His camera tends to stand back from the actors at a discreet distance, until with equal discretion he knows when to step in—and he steps, never swoops—to shows us a significant detail or let us eavesdrop on a whisper in someone’s ear.
There are nits to pick. I could wish Mary Kay Place and Mary Elizabeth Winstead were given more to do, but that’s showbiz. The Hollars is no towering drama blazing new trails in the art of film. It’s just a nice, decent little movie about essentially nice, decent people.