The Hollars tells the familiar tale of a dysfunctional family pulled together by unfortunate circumstances. John Hollar (John Krasinski, who also directed) is a frustrated graphic novelist with a pregnant girlfriend, Rebecca (Anna Kendrick). When he gets the news that his mother, Sally (Margo Martindale), has a brain tumor, he goes out to see her, reigniting old tensions with his father, Don (Richard Jenkins), and brother, Ron (Sharlto Copley). Moments of familial bonding alternate with interludes of exasperation, and key scenes are scored to winsome folk songs. It goes without saying that it premiered at Sundance.
The film is earnest in its desire to convey the trials and tribulations of family life, and finds occasional pathos in John’s anxiety about becoming a father. Still, it’s easy to roll one's eyes at how neatly birth and death are paired here: Rebecca literally goes into labor at a funeral. The night before his mother’s surgery, John sneaks her out of the hospital to have a big meal at a favorite restaurant, and Don and Ron join, sitting happily as a family before the inevitable. This might just be the defining scene of The Hollars: The circumstances are preposterous (John seems as if he would know better than to sneak his sick mother from her hospital bed), but the comfort-food payoff is fleetingly charming.
The Hollars has some heart, but far too much of it is clouded over by an overwhelming atmosphere of cutesiness. (Rebecca is a dog-clothing designer, for heaven’s sake.) In the most deeply felt moment, John shaves his mother’s scalp in preparation for her brain surgery. “You have a really nicely shaped head,” he says. They share a smile. It’s a potentially traumatic scene made poignant, and John’s comment is sincere and good-humored. Unfortunately, much of The Hollars is far more broad, filled with awkward comedy and all-too-predictable indie trappings.
The ending is one of nervous optimism, but the road leading to it is filled with abrasive behavior. Ron is particularly insufferable, going out of his way to crack racist jokes in front of an Asian doctor and breaking into his ex-wife’s house to see his daughters. He’s a broad caricature of a man-child, and his actions feel consistently divorced from any authentic psychology. Sally’s nurse, Jason (Charlie Day), who just happens to be married to John’s high school sweetheart, Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, underused), does little more than act smug and at times unprofessional. Jason and Gwen’s malaise — they've lost the spark since the birth of their kids — represents an obvious fear of John’s but little more. Krasinski might have revealed some interesting grains of human interaction had he given more time to the relationships between Jason and Gwen or Ron and his ex-wife, but what we see mostly feels like frustratingly quirky window dressing for John’s own issues.