Monday, November 1, 2010

One of those small, unhyped little gems 'Welcome to the Rileys' delivers three of the year's finest performances

One of those small, unhyped little gems that come around every once in a while, "Welcome to the Rileys" seems to exist solely to allow three very fine but stylistically disparate actors to do some of the best work of their careers. With James Gandolfini, Melissa Leo, and Kristen Stewart, you have the perfect storm of performers, and they develop a unique rhythm with one another to play this slight material for all it's worth. As an alternative to the only studio offering this week (ahem, "Saw 3D"), "Welcome to the Rileys" is striking by comparison and a must-see for those who like to watch fine acting.

The plot, such as it is, is simple. Emily, the only daughter of Doug (Gandolfini) and Lois (Leo), has been dead for a few years, but that tragic loss is still deeply felt in a marriage that has drifted into routine and indifference. Lois, an agoraphobic, never leaves the house; Doug is having a meaningless thing with a local waitress at the diner where he goes after his poker games. When the opportunity for a business trip to New Orleans comes up, Doug jumps at it and finds his life changed by a visit to a strip club there, where he meets a 16-year-old runaway, Mallory (Stewart), working as a stripper. Soon his fatherly instincts take over and he immerses himself in her life. He impulsively decides to sell his business and remain in New Orleans to look after her. Their relationship is bumpy, but each offers something the other desperately needs, even if they aren't sure what. Lois realizes she needs to take action or lose Doug, and she pulls herself together to head south, although she's not quite prepared for the non-nuclear family she finds herself part of.

Yes, at times "Welcome to the Rileys" is a little too contrived, but it never wears out its welcome, due to sharp writing by Ken Hixon and sensitive direction from Jake Scott. Still, it is an actors' film, and the producers cast well. Gandolfini is the polar opposite of Tony Soprano here, and although some of Doug's behavior is not all that admirable, the actor makes him empathetic and likable. We understand and feel for this good man who wants to be a good father again. Unfortunately, Mallory is hardly what Emily was, and therein lies some of the juicy conflict. Stewart delivers her finest work, nuanced and edgy and never drifting into a stereotypical portrait of a runaway teen flirting with the dark side. Mallory's situation is unusual, but Stewart never hits a false note. Leo is always great, but this role is a departure from her recent work, and she's quite touching as a woman whose world collapsed around her and who now has to pick up whatever pieces remain in order to keep what's left.

Welcome to three of the year's finest performances.


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