Austin Film Festival 2010 Review: WELCOME TO THE RILEYS
Writer: Ken Hixon
Director: Jake Scott
Cast: James Gandolfini, Kristen Stewart, Melissa Leo
Sometimes, when circumstance meets opportunity at just the right time in someone's life they might be inclined to do something unexpected...crazy even. The more severe the circumstance, the more probable the action will be all the more drastic when that opportunity presents itself. Often, the act of doing the unexpected leads to adventure: your old life is postponed, situations you would have never found yourself in present themselves, and relationships you never would have formed (and maybe never should have) become profound.
When Doug Riley (James Gandolfini) and Mallory (Kristen Stewart) meet at a seedy strip club just off the French Quarter, Doug has just embarked on the cathartic adventure on which WELCOME TO THE RILEYS is based, but Mallory just sees him as another mark. After Doug escapes to the champagne room, narrowly avoiding a group of generic businessmen from the convention he's supposed to be attending, he rejects the persistent Mallory who just wants to turn a trick and go back to the stage. She thinks he's a cop (and I would too, really) and storms out, only to have a chance encounter again with the troubled Mr. Riley at a local diner. Their friendship is fast-forming albeit somewhat peculiar given their differences, but the unlikeliness of these two meeting has an underlying sweetness found in the instant recognition of two damaged souls that have just found one another on an otherwise lonely night.
For most of us, the adventure would have ended there. But Doug Riley and his wife Lois (Melissa Leo) are living with a dark tragedy in their hearts - a tragedy that thankfully most of us will never have to endure. Their fifteen year-old daughter Emily was killed in a severe car crash...and the two understandably haven't been the same since. Doug is having an affair when we first meet him, and Lois glides around their house like she's part wife, part ghost. At first glance, their relationship seems perfectly normal given the fact that they've been married thirty years, but we slowly learn that the Rileys are suffering, and suffering deeply at that.
So, when Doug meets Mallory in New Orleans and suddenly feels responsible for her, his motivations and rash action are more justified than someone who hadn't endured such a tragedy had acted just as spontaneously. Doug makes a deal to sell his Plumbing Company, buys some bolt-cutters and cleaning supplies, and sprints over to Mallory's shady domicile to get the electricity back on and get Mallory's life back on track.
In the face of being blind-sided by their daughter's death it's more believable that Doug would act so indiscriminately, so instead of accusing screenwriter Ken Hixon of shoddy plot development, the audience can buy into the bizarre actions of the characters as long as it's only the Rileys who act insane. The rash decisions the characters make are just as sudden as the car wreck that killed their daughter Emily.
Continuing with that logic, Lois Riley does indeed act impetuously, and ventures out to surprise Doug in The Big Easy. Lois has become a shut-in that hasn't been outside for years and is a rock's throw away from existing in a constant state of catatonia. However, her condition and reason for being a hermit is not made known to the audience until much later in the movie, so her actions and inability to drive a car lead to a disconnect from her character and some incredibly out of place comedic moments as she struggles behind the wheel before heading out to confront her husband in New Orleans. We learn much later why she is more affected by Emily's death in a heartfelt scene between Lois and Mallory.
Kristen Stewart's quirks serve her well here, but her ratty appearance and bipolar behavior lend themselves to a drug problem that we never get introduced to. The performance is bold and racy, and Stewart doesn't seem self conscious at all throughout the film. For a sixteen year-old runaway, Mallory is already close to being irrevocably damaged and Doug and Lois know it and try to take care of her even though the prospect of a healthy nuclear family at this point is highly unlikely. Mallory seems to know it before the Rileys ever do, in fact.
Gandolfini shakes off the iconic mobster he is so well known for - a role so recognizable that even George Reeves (TV's first Superman) would have sympathized - and creates an entirely different kind of man in Doug: he's reserved, old-fashioned and positively shattered by his daughter's sudden death. (Interestingly, Lois Riley is even asked by a flirtatious trucker at one point if she's married to Superman). It's his story, and the script and direction never let you forget that.
Director Jake Scott is the son of the legendary Ridley (ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER), but his father's flourishes and sense of style are no where to be found in RILEYS. Instead, the younger Scott's camera is static, choosing to only document and frame his characters with no intention of undermining their experience with unnecessary moves and camera tricks that wouldn't serve the movie; too much emphasis on aesthetic would have only helped Jake Scott secure his next directing gig.
WELCOME TO THE RILEYS doesn't end with the emotional impact that a tighter script and more dramatic conclusion might have accomplished, but the relationship between Gandolfini and Stewart is highly entertaining in most scenes and the two make a memorable onscreen pair. The sense of closure the Rileys end up achieving because of their encounter with Mallory is rewarding enough, even if their relationship with Mallory herself is never fully resolved. With that, audiences can walk away from the film feeling like the journey the characters went through was ultimately worthwhile. Who knows, it might even inspire you to go out on an adventure of your own.