Welcome to the Rileys plays off familiar themes. How a family deals with grief was explored in two of my favorite films of the 2009 festival year. The Greatest, my Top Pick from last year's Sundance Film Festival, and Accidents Happen, which played Tribeca last spring, both look at the tragic consequences of the premature loss of a child. In his second feature, director Jake Scott appears to be stepping into familiar territory.
At first glance Ken Hixon's screenplay says Pretty Woman meets My Fair Lady, with businessman Doug Riley (James Gandolfini) on a mission to tame wild stripper Mallory (Kristen Stewart). The story takes us in a more unexpected direction, however, and its originality begins to emerge. Welcome to the Rileys isn't about redemption per se, but the way that we are inexplicably changed by the strangers who serendipitously enter our lives.
The Rileys are Doug (James Gandolfini) and Lois (Melissa Leo), and it's apparent from the start that their marriage has seen better days. While barely hinting at the tragedy which has slowly pushed them apart, Doug spends more and more time away from home while Lois stays locked inside. On a routine trip to a convention in New Orleans, a visit to a strip club places a young runaway (Kristen Stewart) into Doug's lap. What happens next is not as predictable as it seems, and a fuse is lit which burns ever so slowly as the lives of these three lost souls are altered in the most unpredictable ways.
The film's opening shot sends an immediate and powerful message about the look of this film -- a face obscured in shadow, close up, with only an outline hinting at the actor's identity. Then, lighting up to smoke, the familiar image of actor James Gandolfini fills the screen. The delicate use of natural light and shadow permeates the film, giving it a noir look that perfectly matches the mysterious nature of the characters' thoughts and true motivations. Night scenes are lit using the same type of lamp which illuminates the French Quarter, adding to the indie feel. Marc Streitenfeld's delicate, jazz-influenced score is used sparingly, punctuating the poignant moments of the movie.
Copious use of closeups blends well with the lighting and sound design, and cinematographer Christopher Soos makes full use of the playful visuals offered by colorful and quaint New Orleans. Pacing is appropriately slow, with the patient hand of editor Nicolas Gaster at the helm.
Most of all, Welcome to the Rileys is character-driven, with Leo, Gandolfini, and Stewart each owning their roles with an intensity that never wanes. Few actors play the tortured wife and mother as well as Melissa Leo. As the agoraphobic Lois Riley, her quiet desperation is palpable. Leo's face reflects painful tragedy one moment and shines with the glow of a new mother the next. Gandolfini combines the strength of an experienced road warrior with the innocence of a young man taking his first girl to the prom. His presence dominates this film and his sensitive performance is breathtaking. Stewart takes risks which would be daunting to actors twice her age. Brash and offensive, her Mallory is like a wild tigress in heat that's escaped from the zoo and evades capture at every turn. This could be her most shocking and memorable performance yet.
Director Jake Scott, in his second feature, doesn't shy away from his pedigree -- he's the son of Ridley and nephew of Tony Scott, who serve as producers -- but leaves no doubt that he comes from his own school of filmmaking. On the face of it, this film seems to be a variation on classic dramatic themes. But Welcome to the Rileys retains a unique quality to it that sets it apart from the rest. If you look closely enough, the message is clear. Life-changing experiences aren't planned. They hit you when you least expect it.
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- Author: Larry Richman
- Posted: January 31, 2010