WHAT THEY HAD
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Elizabeth Chomko
Screenwriter: Elizabeth Chomko
Cast: Hilary Swank, Blythe Danner, Robert Forster, Taissa Farmiga, Josh Lucas, Marilyn Dodds Frank, William Smillie
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 10/10/18
Opens: October 19, 2018
There’s a reason that 65% of registered voters in the U.S. will not go to the polls for this all-important mid-term election, or at least this is so if we go by history. We’re too busy with family squabbles, maybe earning a paycheck which adjusted for inflation has not risen in decades, to care all that much about Iran, North Korea, and our present dysfunctional White House. Elizabeth Chomko may be on to something in reflecting the lives of three generations in “What They Had” (whatever that means). The director, who has a longer resume as an actress than a director (this is her freshman project) does show possibilities for further work in the director’s chair, but “What They Had,” a look at a dysfunctional family brought under one roof to argue what should be done with the ailing family matriarch, is a soap opera. It’s a classy one, but still a soap. It does have superb performances from an array of top actors going for it, but that’s enough to shake off potential audience ennui given its tiresome script. It might also get young people in the audience—the few that would attend a movie with a concentration of older, more mature performers—to rethink whether they even want a family.
Though at first we might expect the story to focus on Ruth (Blythe Danner), taking a breath from her commercial for Prolia, which she says can strengthen bones and relieve arthritis. The Alzheimer focus becomes secondary to a free-for-all of family squabbles, none of which is either original or compelling.
Set in a large Chicago-area brownstone occupied by Burt (Robert Forster) and Ruth, “What They Had” brings in Bridget Ertz (Hilary Swank) one woman from flies from California ready to break into tears (as she eventually does) because of her stale marriage to Eddy (Josh Lucas). She kvetches that she was pushed into wedlock by her dad who figured he was more than good enough for her. For his part Nicky (Michael Shannon), who bought a bar and tends it, is not meeting his potential according to father Burt. Young Emma Ertz (Taissa Farmiga) is super unhappy in her freshman year of college, her mother Bridget clueless about how her daughter feels. Mom is called upon, in effect, to allow her to drop out.
The principal conflict pits Nicky against his dad, Burt. Nicky wants to send her mentally ailing mom to a facility that could take care of her but Burt, a former Marine now suffering a heart condition, insists that she can do best by staying just where she is. Never mind that they had to send out a posse to rescue her after she walked in the snow and took a commuter train out of town.
You can do better by renting “Away From Her,” Sarah Polley’s trenchant, yet humorous look at a woman hospitalized for Alzheimer’s, who transfers her affections from husband to a fellow resident at the center. “What They Had” has a terrific ensemble of actors but they can’t overcome the weakness of the soapy script.
100 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – C
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – C+