One of the best, and most surprising, performances from last year was Will Forte’s dramatic turn in Alexander Payne’s moving black-and-white road film "Nebraska." In that film, he was no longer wearing his ridiculous "MacGruber" mullet, and his usual comedic presence was substituted for a more grounded, straight-man performance that carried the film alongside Bruce Dern’s Oscar-nominated performance.
It’d be wrong, however, to pinpoint his performance in "Nebraska" as his first dramatic turn. One month before, Forte moved to the Irish rural countryside for his actual first, and equally great, dramatic turn in "Run & Jump," Steph Green’s feature directorial debut as well as last night's Milwaukee Film monthly members screening at the Oriental Theatre.
The film, which premiered last spring at the Tribeca Film Festival before making the rounds in limited release, banks on heartfelt melodrama as it examines an Irish family that experiences loss, fragility and mixed emotions in the wake of near fatal trauma. Unfortunately, the film stumbles and instead fixates on predictive, restrained territory.
In the opening scene, Venetia Casey (portrayed by the endearingly Maxine Peake) picks up her husband Conor (an impressive Edward MacLiam) from a rural hospital, fully intent on remaining optimistic as they make their way through the countryside in hopes to recoup once they return to their home. She notices his quiet, uncomfortably transformed demeanor as he sits in the passenger seat. One thing is certain: Conor is no longer the same man that she married after a stroke left him in a coma for a month and in the hospital for four more.
Once they’re home, their two children – a young girl and a teenage boy – try to readjust to their "new dad" while Dr. Ted Fielding (Forte, sporting an impeccable beard), an American neuropsychologist, documents Conor’s behavior and random outbursts with a video camera in hand for a case study he’s writing. At first, Ted purposefully keeps his distance, tolerated by the family as he keeps an observant eye on their newfound struggle.
As time moves forward, Conor becomes more standoffish and withdrawn, spending most of his time in his workshop where he used to craft wooden furniture he used to sell. Instead of furniture, he now makes wooden spheres and even a wooden fork that resembles a small, infantile hand he uses to touch people and other things just to avoid any personal contact.
Ted, on the other, comes out of his shell as he’s roped into becoming the new man of the house. He takes an interest in the kids, especially teenaged son Lenny who is being bullied at school by his peers, and forms an emotional connection with Venetia as they share marijuana, a late night bike ride and a few laughs. Their (expected) blossoming relationship and attraction becomes startlingly noticeable by her friends and in-laws, which raises questions of commitment and loyalty during troubling familial and marital times.
Steph Green, an Oscar nominee back in 2009 for her short film "New Boy," is undoubtedly a talented filmmaker who has a sharp sense for the grounded visual style of the film. Cinematographer Kevin Richey beautifully captures the rural Irish landscape, creating an organic setting around the characters that doesn’t feel contrived for even a second. Green also manages to throw in a few quick snippets of Conor before the stroke to give the audience a sense of who he was, a caring father and a loving husband.
Despite the confidence that Green displays in the technical aspects, she falls short in the character development and storytelling. The core of the script, written by Green and Ailbhe Keogan, centers on the question of Venetia and Conor’s marriage. Their marriage is in flux after she realizes that he’s no longer the man that she married because of his behavior transformation.
This is a quite a concept that could’ve added unique tensions between all members of the family but it is instead pushed to the side to focus on the relationship between Venetia and Ted. Conor should be a primary character, not secondary. His character is by far the most interesting but is left muted by the end, as if he's okay that his wife was hanging around Ted, tiptoeing between commitment and adultery.
Sure, we can understand why Venetia is all of a sudden attracted to Ted and we understand why Ted is attracted to Venetia. She feels lost, and she finds comfort when she’s with Ted, a more academic, straight-laced character who offers the support that she needs when he decidedly comes out of his shell. However, Green and Keogan do not explore the relationship or take it beyond boundaries enough to make it interesting. Instead, it all seems random, muddled and lost with no direction forward.
Perhaps a more interesting route could've been to take out the potential romance entirely, and instead focus on the familial and marital reconstruction with Ted as a secondary character with the same "man of the house" role. In fact, the film began as if this was going to be the focus, but it eventually turned into a near Nicholas Sparks-esque melodrama about halfway through, which made it more frustratingly annoying and restrained than heartwarming.
"Run & Jump" isn’t entirely a bad film. Besides the cinematography and the setting, the performances by the cast are pretty strong, especially Forte who is proving to much more than merely a great comedic actor. Let’s hope that he continues to surprise us all.
"Run & Jump" is currently available to rent on Amazon.
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