FILM REVIEW: NOSTALGIA Is A Bummer of a Movie About Loss and Sadness
Most studies about loss—the loss of life, of love (apropos of Valentine’s Day), or of objects—offer a sort of cathartic mechanism through the insight they offer into how humans grapple with such experiences and why they make us who we are. But in the upcoming Palm Springs Film Festival movie Nostalgia, it really is just suffering that is at hand, naked, unabashed pain, without even so much of a hint as to something redemptive to say about the experience. The net result is a movie that is not only a bummer to watch, but really not all that interesting, aside from the well-acted turns of each in the varied, talented cast.
Nostalgia is problematic from inception, given the unnecessarily choppy hand-off triptych structure to which it inexplicably adheres. First we encounter Helen, an older woman played with touching grace by screen legend Ellen Burstyn. Her story yields to that of the baseball artifact collector she eventually encounters, Will, played by a somber Jon Hamm. Eventually the action (or, rather, the depression) shifts to Donna, Will’s sister played by a moving Catherine Keener. There is no obvious need for this narrative style, which disjoints the movie rather than make us feel as if the characters have something in common, and impedes a deep dive into the grief-stricken psyche of the characters.
The stories, themselves, while individually appealing, feel hopelessly imbalanced. Helen has lost her husband to old age but really it is the burning down of her house that she is mourning. As an older woman, objects have deep meaning for her, signifying the varying stages of her life of which little is left but the memories. Burstyn can do it all as an actress and she grips your attention with a methodical, slow exposition of her distress. You never thought you could feel so bad for someone over the loss of a series of pictures, or commune with their attachment to an old baseball. Nick Offerman shows up as Helen’s concerned son, but this Act I belongs undeniably to Burstyn.
Helen eventually decides to sell her husband’s old baseball (a somewhat difficult act to comprehend given her attachment to old and lost objects), and thus encounters Will, Hamm’s character. Will is dealing with his own agony, this one borne out of the loss, at least the metaphysical loss, of his wife. The stakes are higher than losing objects in a fire, though they do not feel necessarily so in Nostalgia during the second act, given that the contours of the divorce or relationship are never outlined. Unlike with Helen, it is not clear why we should care or what it means. No connection is established to the prior story—which disappears entirely—and no lesson is offered either.
It turns out that Will has a sister, Donna, whose horrendous loss of a daughter shatters the last third of Nostalgia into a few dozen minutes of pure torment and affliction. And, this time, the character from the prior partition (Will) does not disappear entirely. So is this the Will and Donna story for 2/3 of the film? Or is it a tryptic? Who knows—Nostalgia certainly does not seem to know, it is more interested in making you suffer.
There is despite all this something strangely hypnotic about the film. Perhaps it is the innately, morbidly appealing nature of loss and grief, of agony and affliction. It is like watching a horror movie, except more real, because though we fear it, we cannot pull away because we know it will eventually happen (again) to us. Or maybe it is the (did I already mention?) captivating performances of each of the three main stars when their number is called? Amber Tamblyn, Patton Oswalt and Bruce Dern all play very minor supporting roles and carry the torch just fine, but the movie belongs to the moving trifecta.
Overall, though, the only Nostalgia you will feel will not be for the past per se, but for your last antecedent moment of happiness, all but snuffed out by this dire and thankless film—and maybe for the days when movies had a point broader than simply depressing you.