Let us now praise Christopher Plummer, the 88-year-old actor, Oscar winner and professional savior of nearly scuttled prestige projects. He’s played everyone from Rommel to Kipling, Mike Wallace to Sherlock Holmes; played everything from New World imperialists to old-world explorers, tycoons to Klingons. Maybe your favorite Plummer is the singing-family patriarch of The Sound of Music, a film he’ll never be able to escape no matter how many times he flees across those alive hills; maybe it’s the diabolical wolf-in-Santa-Claus-clothing in The Silent Partner, a Seventies heist movie ripe for rediscovery, or his late-in-life liberated gay dad in Beginners. There is a Plummer for all seasons. Every fan has his or her favorite present under the Chris-mas tree.
Your personal preferred Plummer may not end up being the octogenarian deadbeat dad who shows up Boundaries, a road trip movie that counts, among its many pitstops, moments of inspired multigenerational bonding, touchy-feely filial-drama and the occasional joke about adult diapers. (Just kidding. There are a lot of jokes about adult diapers.) But he’s the best reason to see Shana Feste’s semiautobiographical story about a screwy single mom (Vera Farmiga) who’s transporting her elderly father from the Pacific Northwest to Southern California. The old con man and his grown offspring have a storied history – she won’t take his calls and fills the hole he left in her heart by adopting stray animals by the dozens. “I was gonna say ‘missed opportunities,'” Farmiga’s character Laura says to her therapist when asked about her big daddy issue, “but sure, [call it] ‘abandonment.'” Ah, good old semantics.
Except he’s just been kicked out of his retirement home for growing a massive amount of pot in the facility’s greenhouse, which means he has to relocate to Los Angeles and live with Laura’s kooky sister (Kristen Schaal, kooky). He also says he’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and this may be the last chance for them to heal ancient wounds. Laura, her misfit teen son (A Monster Calls‘ Lewis MacDougall) and Pops pile in to his old beater of a car, with the idea of getting this trip over as quickly as possible. Dad has other plans. Namely, he wants to unload a lot of his “product” for profit as they head down the coast, which requires a few creative detours. He’s also not above recruiting his grandson for the cause, right under his daughter’s nose.
Mind you, Plummer isn’t the only thing this movie has going for it. There’s writer-director Feste’s knack for a choice line and a real feel for how to stage an offbeat comic moment: During Laura’s opening confessional, her therapist goes “I do notice you have a kitten in your purse” out of the blue, and we suddenly cut to a shot of a kitten purring away in a handbag. She also has a way of lining the film’s inherent sentimental quirk with some beautiful humanistic touches, such as a montage of Plummer’s clients – farming hippies, gutterpunks, construction workers – that gives each Americana eccentric their own stand-alone close-up. (You can’t say Feste doesn’t love the human face, in all its ragged glory – or her own late father, a.k.a. the inspiration for Plummer’s character, who shows up among the featured customers.)
And no one should short-shrift Farmiga, an actor so consistently good that we tend to take her talents for granted. She does wonders with this character’s rough edges, and her scenes with her onscreen dad, her prickly-dour son and her ex-husband, played with top-shelf douchebag smarm by Bobby Cannavale, don’t skimp on the sting. Surrounding herself with a menagerie of four-legged orphans – which has nothing to do with her parental issues, why would you even think that?!? – and bouncing from one dysfunctional relationship/friendship to the next, her Laura is a glorious mess. It’s a Farmiga specialty. Yet more importantly, she’s a recognizable one, even when things get soggy … and they do get soggy long before we reach our final destination. Everything from her sideways pride in her kid’s obscene drawing of a teacher to her inability to stop from picking up dogs on the side of the highway feels attuned to an authentic sense of deep-rooted pain.
But it’s the man behind the crusty old coot at the center of Boundaries that gives this film its gas. Plummer knows how to goose a simple declaration like “This is the good stuff” for maximum joie de vivre. He knows how to sell an over-the-line line like “Even pedophiles know to steer clear of your bad vibes” regarding his paranoid grandson without losing the audience. He knows how to make you feel that borderline stock encounters with an old forger (Christopher Lloyd) and a veteran record producer (Peter Fonda, who maybe you didn’t hear has been in the news recently) are deeper that they actually are. He can make “I gotta change my diaper, I’ll see you chickenshits tonight” feel like a mantra. Listen, we did warn you there would be adult-incontinence jokes.
There’s an unpredictability in Plummer’s performance that keeps this dramedy on its toes even as its inevitably gets more and more predictable; of course there will be tearful admissions and life lessons and last-minute attempts to make up for lost time. And still, you follow this geriatric grifter, far too set in his ways to really change and all too willing to manipulate “loved” ones, all the way to the end. Boundaries is not as good as you want it to be. It is a better movie than it should be because Plummer is in it. Any film that he pushes past its limits this well deserves your attention.