‘Tumbledown’
Director:
Sam Mewshaw
Stars: Rebecca Hall, Jason Sudeikis
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

“Tumbledown” never played Sundance, but it feels exactly like a classic Sundance indie: name stars, yuks mixed with heavy drama, sensitive folk music over contemplative shots of lakes and moutainscapes and dirt roads. That it’s made all the more palatable by a handful of terrific, lively, lived-in performances is itself a cliche. And even that it mixes genuine insight in between other, couldn’t-resist cliches is a cliche as well. Watching it, especially after a Sundance whose unusual and ambitious lineup seemed to redefine what makes a Sundance movie, should make it seem tired. Instead it feels like comfort food.

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Rebecca Hall and Jason Sudeikis are the actors who help spice things up. Hall just came off one of the more unusual new Sundance titles: the detached biopic “Christine, and in this film plays Hannah, a widow whose renowned folk musician husband died three years ago in what is said to have been a hiking accident. Sudeikis, meanwhile — who is known primarily for comedy — takes on a serious role.

In the opening minutes, Hannah is heard but not seen, ruminating on the narration track, against a moody Damien Jurado song, about loss. (“In the middle you feel like it’s never going to end.”) When she finally appears we see she's no mere sensitive soul. She’s grouchy and strident, and when a hotshot New York professor, Jason Sudeikis’ Andrew, rolls into her quaint Nowhere, Maine town, looking to write a hopelessly academic book on her late husband, she doesn’t take to it kindly — she’s hard at work on a bio herself.

And yet Andrew isn’t very fragile either. Sudeikis’ gift for smarmy wise-cracking is very much present and accounted for. Even when he turns to speeches about his love for Hannah’s late husband we see the same passion he reserves for sarcasm segueing smoothly into sincerity, then back again. 

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The screenplay, by Desiree Van Til, tries to obscure the tracks that lay ahead, pretending it won’t be the kind of movie where the two bicker en route to love. Andrew even has a girlfriend who exists to be unceremoniously jilted. There are questions about how Hannah’s hubs died, plus very real concerns about how, without a proper, splashy book, he might fade into obscurity. There are even debates, with his parents (including the now de rigueur razor sharp turn from Blythe Danner), about whether Andrew’s intentions are noble or self-aggrandizing (or both). Most of this gets chucked by the third act, when our only concern is when Hannah and Andrew will get busy. 

But “Tumbledown” has a way of cushioning its predictability, through good humor and, especially, ideal casting. When the big moment for our heroes belatedly comes, it’s all the better thanks to the goofy way Hall plays the scene. It’s not about what happens but how it happens, and “Tumbledown” makes the way it doles out its familiar storyline if not always insightful than at least entertaining, even moving.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge