Genre movies are the ugly stepchildren of cinema; who hasn’t condescended towards them while simultaneously making the category the most widely seen in any given year? The themes may vary; film noir, musical, westerns, horror - - but the results never vary; what the critics often pan, the public gobbles up.
Tumbledown is an example of a particular sub-category in the romantic comedy genre, the one which puts a man and woman who are apparently totally unsuited to each other in situations designed according to a formulaic plot; initial irritation and avoidance followed by rejection, then the injection of an element in the storyline which exposes them to underlying elements of attraction in the other, followed by romantic competition from a character the audience clearly doesn’t want to win and culminating in the realization by the putative lovers that despite their initial negative reactions, they’ve fallen hopelessly in love. Fade out to the promise of a life lived happily ever after…
The success or failure of this often-imitated film category depends upon a few crucial ingredients; (1) attractive leads whose chemistry wins over a presumptively skeptical audience, (2) dialogue bristling with snarky wit, delivered at high speed, (3) a storyline with sufficient momentum to gloss over the plot’s patently fairy-tale premise and finally, (4) a director with sufficient skill to blend all the ingredients together, a cinematic chef who can deliver a perfectly delicious soufflé – which fan of gastronomy knows is a very difficult feat to pull off.
As a result, complete successes in this movie vein very few; Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn, (Pat and Mike, Adam’s Rib etc.) come to mind, along with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, (His Girl Friday) for those of us old enough to remember when telephones weren’t portable, as well as a few offbeat pairings in the not-too-distant past like Robert Redford and Jane Fonda (The Electric Horseman) and more recent bright spots like Jack Nicholson & Diane Keaton, (Something’s GotTo Give). All now considered minor classics worthy of the appellation “artistic success”.
Tumbledown stars Jason Sudeikis (Horrible Bosses 1 & 2 a regular on Saturday Night Live) as David, a culturally officious college professor intent on writing the definitive biography of a highly talented singer-songwriter who died early in his career after a mysterious accident near his home in backwoods Maine. Rebecca Hall, (The Town, Vicky, Christina Barcelona, Iron Man) plays Hannah, the grieving widow intent on keeping the memory of her dead husband alive at all costs while writing her own book about his life. David wants access to the intimate details of the composer’s life so his book can advance his academic career; Hannah wants the flippant academic who’s pestering her with interview requests to just leave her the hell alone.
Using bookstore owner Griffin Dunne as her muse/critic, Hannah concludes that she lacks the ability to write a first-rate version of her husband’s life and reluctantly agrees to partner with David on a joint project. What follows constitutes a compendium all the genre’s familiar plot devices; small town life as seen through the eyes of a supposedly sophisticated urbanite, a competing suitor with rugged good looks and a dim bulb between his ears, the members of Hannah’s family (especially her mother Ellen, deliciously portrayed by Blythe Danner) anxious to have Hannah get back into living her own life, the suspicious girl friend who intuits David’s romantic leanings long before he’s aware of them, a funeral that causes Hannah to face her demons - - even her dogs, whose morose expressions function as a canine Greek chorus.
Tumbledown’s title suggests an element of mystery here as well-just what were the circumstances behind the death of such an apparently happy and productive talent like Hannah’s husband? Answering that question gives David a painful window into his own life, serving as an intriguing addition to the standard elements of this otherwise quite conventional storyline.
Sudeikis and Hall are excellent at skewering each other and anyone who incurs their wrath; Danner and Dunne are excellent as the wise old owls required to keep the principals from destroying their chance for happiness and beefed up Joe Manganiello (Spiderman, Magic Mike) steals his scenes as Hannah’s wannabe suitor who can’t quite keep pace with his competition’s verbal jabs and uppercuts.
First time feature director Sean Mewshaw shares credit for the story and screenplay with newcomer Desire Van Til; their collaboration and Mewshaw’s skill at keeping the atmosphere slyly amusing make this latest take on the classic romantic comedy both contemporary in tone and delightful to watch.
The Verdict? A fluffy breath of fresh air revives an old genre. But be sure to pay particular attention to the millennial era dialogue it comes fast and furiously you’ll miss a lot if you don’t pay attention.
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