In Nostalgia, director Mark Pellington tackles death, dying, and how to deal with the personal effects left behind by the dear departed. It’s a blow for anyone who has ever lost a loved one, but nearly two hours is too long to sit through this much depression. Eventually the movie becomes depressing, too. A well-meaning, expertly acted film, it unfortunately drowns in its own sorrow, making its commercial prospects dim.
Pellington is a good director who has previously concentrated on thrillers (Arlington Road, The Mothman Prophecies). He has talent, and he certainly knows a thing or two about actors and how to move them around before the cameras compellingly. In this collage of post-mortem emotional challenges, a first-tier cast works hard to avoid sentimentality, but the material defeats them. It begins when an old man who is about to die (Bruce Dern) is visited by a cold and businesslike insurance appraiser who assesses the value of his possessions. What he has is mostly clutter from the past with relevance to nobody but himself, but his annoyance with the appraiser for his lack of interest is understandable.
Continuing on his appointed rounds, the insurance man’s next stop is the rubble left behind by a lethal fire that destroyed the home of a woman (Ellen Burstyn) who is grief-stricken over the total loss of everything she’s known in the home where she has lived for 30 years. The usually indifferent appraiser finds it impossible not to be moved. “Every story has details I’ve never heard before. Nobody wants to be talking to me—but I think knowing that makes my job much easier,” he says. Unconvinced, the woman salvages a few relics that survived the fire (some jewelry, a nostalgic baseball autographed by Ted Williams) and takes them to Las Vegas, where the movie shifts its focus from the insurance man to a compassionate collectibles dealer (Jon Hamm) who buys antiques and souvenirs, understanding too well why elderly victims of tragedy refuse to consider assisted living and starting over again. Their possessions are their artifacts, their scars. And suddenly, the dealer is facing the same wrenching decisions as his clients.
NOSTALGIA ★★ 1/2
Next, the movie follows the dealer from his shop in Vegas to the childhood house in the home town where he grew up to help his sister (Catherine Keener), brother-in-law (James Le Gros), and niece (the excellent Mikey Madison) clean out the detritus left behind after his parents moved to a condo in Florida. Jon Hamm, flooded with memories, does his best work since “Mad Men” in a performance both sensitive and expansive, exposing depths of his range previously untouched on television. And the script cowritten by Pellington by Alex Ross Perry makes valid points about how, after all the physical and material reminders of a life are gone, all you’ve got left is love. Today, in the digital age, it’s even harder to collect traces of a loved one; all their data is on cell phones, computers, and even digital photos instead of cameras and negatives. Unfortunately, these revelations in Nostalgia are a long time coming.