Welcome to the Rileys by writer Ken Hixon (Inventing the Abbots) and director Jake Scott (Ridley’s son) is a somber tale with little comic relief and even less originality. Almost every move this film makes is toward a cliché or cheap emotional ploy. It occasionally even succeeds at its maudlin task, but only at the expense of smart storytelling. There must have been a time when writers didn’t exploit the idea of the grieving parent who had senselessly and prematurely lost a child, or push the hooker-with-a-heart-of- gold motif, but it certainly hasn’t been anytime since . . . oh, say Ordinary People, or even Pretty Woman. James Gandolfini, Melissa Leo, and Kristen Stewart bring whatever spirit and talent they can to enliven the film’s flimsy plot, but even they can’t save an overplayed story.

The movie first introduces Doug Riley, a dealer of plumbing supplies in Indianapolis, an unfaithful (but not unjustifiably so) husband, and the grieving father of a teenage girl who died almost a decade ago in a fiery car accident. He can do whatever he wants with little fear of discovery, because his wife of thirty years, Lois (Melissa Leo), is a mousey shut-in who has hardly left the house since her daughter’s untimely demise. When Doug has to go to New Orleans for a business trip, Lois has to ask her sister (played in a rare appearance by brat pack’s Ally Sheedy) to pick up her mail, because she won’t walk to the mailbox in her front yard.

While away on his trip, Doug decides to escape his conference by ducking into the nearest seedy bar / strip club, where he runs into and hesitantly befriends the young Mallory (which is only one of the many names she uses), portrayed by an unexpectedly capable Kristen Stewart. The meeting transforms his entire life, as he subsequently decides to uproot his quiet, doomed existence, sell his business and call his wife, telling her that he won’t be coming home because he needs to stay in New Orleans for awhile. His intention is to take this “little girl lost” under his wing without being overbearing, and make sure she doesn’t get into too much trouble. His true motivation, of course, is to experience a sense of closure over his own daughter’s death by somehow bringing his interrupted parenting patterns to fruition. He wants to convince himself his life isn’t over, and the only way he can do that is by picking up where he left off a decade before, when his daughter’s death killed the best of him.

Welcome to the Rileys has some clever moments, as when Doug visits his daughter’s grave, looks at the name carved in her tombstone, before seeing a pre-purchased headstone of his own beside hers. Then he merely laughs. These subtler moments are not frequent enough, however, to make up for the template-like feel of the movie, but they certainly help. Most of the time, Scott seems to think he can convey profundity by shooting long scenes where characters look at each
other meaningfully.

The performances help. Without the three main characters’ compelling roles, the film wouldn’t even be worth following for almost two hours. Gandolfini and Leo are amazingly precise and creative in everything they bring to the camera, and they are sweetly believable as an old married couple who have been through the wringer together. Since comparison between Doug Riley and Tony Soprano can’t be avoided, I will say that Gandolfini brings only the most innocent and insightful aspects of the famous mob boss to this recent role, and has traded in his Jersey accent for a Midwestern one just as thick. As for Stewart, it’s hard to hold her next to actors like Gandolfini and Leo and expect to see anything but glaring contrast, but her energy is quite palpably endearing in her role as Mallory, and even though she has a tendency to play it up a bit at times, she definitely holds her own and delivers a promising performance. The casting director of this movie should be applauded, but Scott and Hixon need to sit down to a good brainstorming session so they don’t end up making another movie of which everyone has seen some permutation.

Starring: James Gandolfini, Melissa Leo, Kristen Stewart
Director: Jake Scott
Runtime: 110 minutes.
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn
Rating: R

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