John Krasinski, as actor and director, tackles the most clichéd genre in the movie business — the dysfunctional family dramedy. The big difference is he pulls it off with uncommon humor and compassion. The plot from screenwriter Jim Strouse (Grace Is Gone) spins this way: John Hollar (Krasinski), a graphic novelist living in Manhattan with his pregnant, pet-clothing designer girlfriend Becca (Anna Kendrick), gets a disturbing call from home. The emergency involves his mother, Sally (Margo Martindale), who has suffered a seizure while curling her hair. In the hospital, Dr. Fong (Randall Park) pinpoints an advanced brain tumor.
It’s a shock to the family, including John, his older brother Ron (Sharlto Copely) and their father Don (Richard Jenkins). If you noticed the Hollar men are called Don, Ron and John, you can see the kind of fun that sneaks into these sorrowful proceedings. Add Charlie Day as Sally’s nurse Jason, who’s married to Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), John’s ex girlfriend, and still resents the hell out of John. And there’s Josh Groban, of all people, scoring nicely as a youth pastor who lives with Ron’s ex-wife, Stacey (Ashley Duke), and drives Ron up the wall.
Familiar complications. But have you been paying attention to the actors in this cast? All top talents who make this material sing. In his second turn as a director, Krasinski lacks the provocative material of his first, a strong 2009 film adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. But he eases the Strouse script over the cornball rough spots and his way with actors remains exemplary. Copely, outside the alien universe of his usual films (hello, District 9), is genuinely touching. Jenkins is a standout as the father who can’t cope with his wife’s illness. And the Emmy-winning Martindale is again the best friend any role ever had. Listen up, Academy: Martindale’s hilarious and heartbreaking performance is proof positive that she’s one of the best actors on the planet. Whether Sally is frowning at her shaved-for-surgery head (“I look like Rod Steiger”) or leaving a note for her husband with instructions on how to get along without her, Martindale plays her with bracing truth. So what are you waiting for? Some critics have dismissed The Hollars as a throwaway. Maybe it is. But it goes down easy. And its aim is true.