Writer/director Andrew Levitas betrays his roots as an actor in his debut feature Lullaby. He stuffed his script with characters on the verge of death, overly florid speeches, and operatic feelings, and the result is a movie in which nearly every scene feels like an emotional crescendo.
Garrett Hedlund stars as Jonathan Lowenstein, the estranged son of Robert (Richard Jenkins), a terminally ill cancer patient. He returns home for the first time in years because his father wants to turn off the machines keeping him alive. The twentysomething aspiring musician feels lost in life, and as he wrestles with the giant influence his dad had on him, he reconnects with an old girlfriend (Amy Adams) who dumped him for being emotionally unavailable, and befriends Meredith (Jessica Barden), a cancer-stricken teen who helps him see how precious life is. While Jonathan, his mother Rachel (Anne Archer), and his sister Karen (Jessica Brown Findlay) stand vigil as his dad wrestles with his choice, they fight, make up, cry, laugh, and try to address and forgive the many hurts theyíre each carrying.
To his credit, Levitas has put together a very strong cast, and they help sell his sometimes underdeveloped, simplistic scenes and dialogue. Jenkinsí performance is, as always, perfectly modulated. A lesser actor would have played his character to the hilt, but Jenkins makes sure his voice always sounds like Robert is just about out of breath -- itís a smart and telling detail. Terrence Howard, portraying the doctor who has agreed to help euthanize Robert, also underplays, but no amount of subtlety can mitigate the manipulative qualities of a scene in which he shows far more emotional involvement in his patient than anyone would expect from a seasoned doctor. Barden essays the most likable character, and it seems as if she knows it; she never feels the need to milk our sympathies by playing Meredithís wisdom and condition for pathos.
The problem is that the script doesnít know how to build momentum. Seemingly every scene between the family members is structured around a verbal fight that escalates to the point where somebody says something really hurtful. That person immediately says theyíre sorry, and then someone else (usually Robert) lets them know that itís okay. As a result, the emotions fail to build over the course of the movie, and that makes the whole film far less compelling than matters of life and death should be.
These characters face problems that are commonplace, but Lullaby comes up short as a universal portrait of grief by including too many ìmovie momentsî -- the most egregious being Karen presenting a legal brief to her father, at his insistence, on why he should change his mind and continue to fight. Itís a show-off moment for the actress and the screenwriter, and one that feels cheap and sentimental in a film that wants to explicitly show the beginning of the mourning process.
Lullaby proves that Levitas can work with actors. If he ever gets his hands on sharper material, he seems fully capable of delivering a crowd-pleasing comedy or drama.
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