Love is not only, as the song goes, for the very young. Sometimes it aims an unexpected arrow at an older mark, after the dewlaps sag and the apple won’t bite. You wouldn’t know this from the movies, where producers are scarcely out of diapers and anyone over 50 is considered the box office equivalent of poison sumac. Once in a lunar eclipse, you get Gena Rowlands and James Garner in The Notebook, or a rare appearance from Vanessa Redgrave, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith in supporting “cameos” way below the title. But by definition, movies have plunged into a depressing stage of younger-generation mediocrity rarely worth noting anywhere except the unreliable, souped-up weekly grosses reported in Variety (and that’s fading, too).
Lovely, Still is a respectable though uneven exception to this oversight. The feature directing debut of newcomer Nicholas Fackler, a 25-year-old puppy from Omaha, Nebraska, it has good intentions, resonance, insight and wonderful performances by two Oscar-winning cornerstones–Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn–who can still teach a younger generation a thing or two about the skill and craft that have largely disappeared from movie acting today. Set in the director’s native Omaha the week before Christmas, it centers on a lonely old bachelor named Robert Malone (Landau), who wraps his own gifts in an empty house, trying to drum up some holiday spirit in joyless solitude. Even his wake-up ritual is empty–brushing, flossing, showering, choosing his tie, swallowing his coffee. If he fell, no one would catch him. To stay active, he bags groceries in a convenience market. Then one day he trudges home through the blustery snow to his modest little house and finds a beautiful lady named Mary (Burstyn) in the living room. A new neighbor who just moved in across the street, she found his door open, and dropped in to check on him. Robert is furious and shocked to find a stranger encroaching on his privacy, but Mary is undaunted by his rude welcome. She asks him out to dinner. It’s amusing to watch two seniors going through dating hell, but Lovely, Still is just beginning.
Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that it is also going nowhere special. Mostly, it’s a pleasant collage of old folks falling in love–vignettes accompanied by the worst soundtrack shmaltz ever assembled, from gloppy carols that grow intrusive and annoying faster than you can hum “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. …” An open carriage ride sharing a lap blanket. Dinner in a romantic restaurant where the Christmas decorations are better than the food. Walking in the snow and looking at the Christmas windows. Think of it as a charming vehicle for two durable old friends–a lame vehicle, it turns out, but at least a chance to see them in something besides other people’s bad movies. At least they aren’t forced to muster acting skills for roles beneath their ability to fake it, like playing the parents of creeps like Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Jack Black, Michael Cera, Paul Dano and Jason Schwarzman. No, this is their movie, and it’s a thrill to watch a pair of real pros rise to their full potential. What a shame young Mr. Fackler’s screenplay isn’t on quite the same par as his assured direction. When she knocks over her medications in the sink and the pharmacy refuses to refill her prescription until after the holidays, you know something awful is going to happen. All you can do is wait to see how much bad luck one movie can think up for besotted old lovers for whom every year is another enemy.
There is also something off-balance about Mary to tip you off. She’s not right. Pushy, overeager and intense as a giddy teenager, she leaves Robert unnerved. Paranoia sets in, then jealousy and fear of losing her. Dancing in the glow of the Christmas tree lights takes a sudden surreal turn, and it’s almost over before you realize nothing you’ve seen is exactly real, and none of the people are who you think they are. Think Alzheimer’s, Gena Rowlands in The Notebook and a tectonic mood shift in the direction of Alfred Hitchcock, set to the tune of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Unfortunately, with so much crummy pop-rock source music, the designed effect of alternate reality the film intends to ultimately create is somewhat blunted.
It’s still worth seeing for its two dazzling centerpieces. Mr. Landau invests each move with sincerity and directness, and with her flawless skin and ageless smile, Ms. Burstyn still has the candlelit sweetness of spun sugar. Even in a disappointing film, watching her is indeed lovely, still.
Running time 90 minutes
Written and directed by Nicholas Fackler
Starring Martin Landau, Ellen Burstyn, Adam Scott, Elizabeth Banks