In ‘Lullaby,’ an Estranged Rock Musician Returns Home to Watch His Father Die

Garrett Hedlund in Lullaby.

Garrett Hedlund in Lullaby.

Two hours of terminal agony in a New York cancer ward is too long for almost anybody. Even when the people in the downbeat Lullaby aren’t dying, they spend every minute of their time onscreen talking about it. 

Lullaby ★★½ 
(2.5/4 stars)

Written and directed by: Andrew Levitas
Starring: Amy Adams, Garrett Hedlund and Jessica brown Findlay
Running time: 117 min.

Written and directed by painter-sculptor-sometime actor Andrew Levitas, who was inspired by his own father’s long deterioration by cancer, Lullaby is about a rock musician who returns home after years of estrangement to watch his wealthy father die. Jonathan (Garrett Hedlund) is first seen on a plane as two flight attendants arrest him for smoking in the bathroom. One of them takes pity on him when he confesses he’s on his way to a final farewell, but it soon becomes clear that puffing away illegally in an airplane lavatory is typical of the hostile personality of the antisocial Jonathan. Ejected from the hospital for insulting a nurse, he is soon rescued by his grieving mother, Rachel (Anne Archer), and the family physician (Terrence Howard), who both inform him that Robert, his father and the family patriarch (the always excellent Richard Jenkins), tired of living on morphine and fed up with the business of daily sips of death, has decided to go off all life-support systems in 24 hours and call it a day.

Jonathan takes advantage of the time limit to straighten out his life, reconcile with his dad, reconnect with his mom and tie together all his loose ends with friends and lovers. Pitching in are his sister, Karen (Jessica Brown Findlay, of Downton Abbey), a former girlfriend (Amy Adams, in a role so small and inconsequential I’m amazed she accepted the assignment) and a couple of outside sources—a tough, no-
nonsense nurse (Jennifer Hudson) and a spunky 17-year-old patient (Jessica Barden) who is dying of bone marrow cancer. The most shocking scene in an otherwise lethargic movie is when Mom’s pent-up rage boils over and she slaps her bedridden husband across the face. The most unconvincing scene comes when the cynical Jonathan escorts the dying teenage patient to a make-believe prom organized by the other patients. She tells him, “I’ll never get to be naked with a boy. I’ll never get to drive a car.” It’s The Fault in Our Stars without persuasion, subtlety or conviction.

But there are complications. Karen (an attorney, naturally, with a Yale Law School degree) has filed an injunction to prevent Robert from going forward with the assisted suicide, and to make matters worse, dear old Dad has given away the family fortune, leaving them all bankrupt. Jonathan has never forgiven Robert for his refusal to finance his career as a rock singer (a smart move, since his songs stink and actor Hedlund can scarcely carry a tune), and now Mom goes into a rage knowing, after 35 years of marriage, her husband has made crucial financial decisions without consulting her. Mr. Levitas has an awkward way with dialogue and such a contrived sense of style that the narrative is peppered with poorly placed flashbacks to earlier memories, like Jonathan’s continual problems with Judaism and the day Robert forced the whole family to pick out their cemetery plots. These intrusions do nothing to enrich the plot or enhance character development, though I admire the attempt to inject humor into a serious subject to keep the audience from squirming.

The point Lullaby tries to make is that even in tragedy people laugh in the most inappropriate moments. They also behave badly. Mr. Levitas offers some sobering views about the necessity of accepting death and the nonessential values of prolonging life. But the film seems endless and sentimental, and the writing is too philosophical to keep the audience awake. Everyone confesses and apologizes and sobs all over the place, sometimes all at the same time in the same scene. Maybe that’s what people do when they leave life’s mortal coil. But despite the work of a first-rate cast, it doesn’t feel real to me. Audiences are troubled enough already without spending more money to be doubly depressed at the movies, and commercial success seems risky.

You’re on your own with this one.