James Gandolfini has a face as malleable as taffy. I have never seen him give a performance that didn’t startle, transfix and thoroughly please me. Built like Humpty Dumpty, with a melting smile and a countenance so changeable and expressive that he can show several emotions at the same time, he is never less than irresistible. So good, in fact, that he can almost make a dreary disappointment like Welcome to the Rileys bearable. But not for long. Despite its good intentions, this earnest little film seems embalmed.
It begins with a typical dead-end evening in the unhappy life of Doug Riley, who spends every Thursday night stuck in the same routine–poker, waffles and sex with the waitress at the Pancake House. Doug owns a plumbing supply business in Indianapolis that offers no respite from a life consumed with mourning over the death of his daughter, Emily, in a car crash. At home, he sits in a dark garage and smokes forbidden cigarettes while his wife, Lois (the always reliable Melissa Leo), locks herself away, works on her ceramics, stares at the walls and sees images of Emily dancing across her eyeballs. She’s a tortured agoraphobic who hasn’t been out of the house in eight years. They’re polite strangers, occupying the same empty space but joined together only by mutual loss. The holes in their hearts cannot be filled, so Doug looks beyond their tunnel vision for outside help when he attends a convention in New Orleans and becomes infatuated with a tough 16-year-old runaway stripper and borderline crack whore (Kristen Stewart, from vampire fame in the Twilight series), who is as lonely and lost as he is. It never occurs to anybody in this movie to call in a psychiatrist. Why settle for easy when there’s so much pain just waiting to be experienced, like eating broken glass?
As Doug’s paternal interest grows and a reluctant, mismatched relationship develops, the movie drags on, piling on one preposterous situation after another. He closes his business back home and offers the girl $100 a day, no strings attached, just to let him move into her sordid house with no electricity and a filthy toilet that’s been stopped up for years. If that’s not implausible enough, Lois suddenly drives all the way from Indiana to Louisiana, breathing into a paper bag to keep from hyperventilating. Now all three of them are making beds, painting walls and dusting the dirt in a faux family pretense as dopey as it is bizarre. Trying to save the girl from drugs and prostitution by forcing her to brush her teeth and sleep on clean sheets with hospital corners, Mrs. Riley dispenses advice on venereal disease, and Mr. Riley docks her a dollar every time she uses the F word. It has just the opposite effect of compassion, and just seems simple-minded and, frankly, funny in all the wrong places.
What keeps this leaden freighter afloat is the acting. Melissa Leo, in another gallant entry in her gallery of oddballs, and Mr. Gandolfini, eons away from his role in The Sopranos, bring nuance to the task of toting Ms. Stewart out of decadence and sin, but the sexy squalor of the Big Easy wins every time. The cheap glitter of New Orleans is an ornamental contrast to the numbness of Indianapolis, but practically no use is made of the colorful ambience it offers. This movie could just as well have been made in Pismo Beach. The whole thing makes you feel like you’re stoned. By the time Lois says, “She’s not Emily,” and the Rileys head back home, you’re too tired to mumble, “What took you so long?” You just wonder what Jake Scott, the director son of Ridley Scott, and Ken Hixon, the confused and inconsistent screenwriter, were smoking. Whatever it is, I’ll have what they’re having.
WELCOME TO THE RILEYS
Running time 110 minutes
Written by Ken Hixon
Directed by Jake Scott
Starring James Gandolfini, Kristen Stewart, Melissa Leo, Ally Sheedy