Pieced together like a patchwork quilt of characters and situations, Nostalgia, the latest from director Mark Pellington (The Last Word, Arlington Road), is about connections—both loose and tight—that people have with each other and how sometimes a single, shared moment is all we need to link us with otherwise total strangers. In many ways, this is a movie with no beginning, middle or end; one story flows into the next, connected only by one character meeting another character. One story’s ending is another one’s beginning, and in the end, very few of the individual stories matter as much as the series of connections—no one link is more important than the chain.
Written by filmmaker Alex Ross Perry (Queen of Earth, Listen Up Philip), Nostalgia’s common themes are related to physical objects and how they shape memories of the times in our lives where these life artifacts were most important to us. We open with insurance assessor Daniel (John Ortiz) visiting the home of an elderly widower played by Bruce Dern, and the two have an interesting and honest conversation about the value of the old man’s life. Not surprisingly, he’s worth more dead than alive. Ortiz’s character then goes to share the results of his inspection with Dern’s granddaughter (Amber Tamblyn) and her husband (Chris Marquette; “Joan of Arcadia” fans might get a charge out of this pairing).
Then Daniel moves on to his next client: an elderly woman (Ellen Burstyn) whose house has just burned to the ground, and the only thing of worth she saved was a rare baseball that belonged to her late husband. Trying to figure out what to do next, Burstyn consults with her son (Nick Offerman), but she quietly decides she needs to move on, so she contacts a sports memorabilia dealer (Jon Hamm) about selling the ball, which it turns out is actually quite valuable. The two have a great talk about memories and what it might mean for her to part with the last things she owns that belonged to her husband, but ultimately she does part with it and her previous life. You see how this goes.
The final chapter of Nostalgia involves the memorabilia dealer’s sister (Catherine Keener) and her daughter (Annalise Basso), who is days away from leaving for college. Other players in this segment include James Le Gros, Mikey Madison and Patton Oswalt, all of whom go through an unexpected tragedy together that brings a family together as much as it virtually destroys it. Make no mistake, Nostalgia’s primary objective is to tear your heart to little pieces and make you weep like a newborn, and at some point, that’s more than likely going to happen. But it’s tough not to feel the somewhat overwritten work manipulate you like a sock puppet with its big, dumb mouth wrapped tightly around your heartstrings. I’m not usually a fan of such blatant, unapologetic manhandling, but Ross Perry doesn’t use traditional sentimental tricks to get us to feel, which doesn’t make me feel any better, but I appreciate the original approach he takes.
Nostalgia is a gorgeous looking work, thanks to cinematographer Matt Sakatani Roe, making his feature debut after years of music videos, shorts and television work. And it certainly helps that the visuals support the oppressive emotions of the film itself. But in the end, it’s a struggle to genuinely recommend a piece that wants to hurt you so deeply. There are a handful of really great performances scattered throughout the movie, but none of them stand out enough to say it’s worth putting yourself into therapy after enduring this sobfest.
The film opens today at the AMC River East 21 and the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.