While watching How About You, I imagined an elderly woman slowly unwrapping toffees in the theater seat just in front of me. I imagined the only possible scenario in which I might enter that theater -- perhaps it is cold, perhaps it is raining and it's a matinee that I just happen to wander into. I would have to know absolutely nothing about the film, much the same way that I knew very little about Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont a couple of years back. I sat down behind the woman with the toffees, and had a rollickingly good time with an extremely old fashioned British film about a widow who convinces a complete stranger to masquerade as her grandson in order to impress the crotchety residents of her old folks' home.
That film was full of warm surprises, unexpected plot twists and solidly motivated character development. How About You signals its mediocrity during the title sequence while Bobby Darrin demolishes the title Broadway tune. The impossibly catchy and clichéd song reappears in variations throughout, including a clunky sing-along in a local pub that tries for uplift but falls flat. The tune itself gets stuck to the inside of the ears, all faux folly and outdated references.
Young Ellie, a free spirit, shows up on her older sister's doorstep looking for a place to stay. The doorstep in question is located in a failing Irish retirement home called Woodlands, which her sister bought after her husband's death from cancer. The home itself is quite beautiful, but the people who live there are bitter, contemptuous old coots, living out the last chapters of their lives in not so quiet self pity. Of course, these old coots are played by fine British actors, including Vanessa Redgrave as Georgia, a faded movie star with an alcohol problem. But the alcohol problem is really just a prop, like the headscarf the character sports, reminding us that Redgrave portrayed Isadora Duncan back in her own glory days. Even though Georgia seems to start each day with a martini and spends most of her time sucking down the drinks, the alcohol doesn't puff up her face or dull her memory. She can still look into the mirror and spy her long faded glory days. Yawn.
The other residents are no more pleasant. A former barrister and two spinster sisters regularly tear at one another and scare away any other potential residents. Naturally, Ellie and her older sister fight over Ellie's irresponsibility. A turn of events will -- can you see it coming? -- leave Ellie in charge of the coots, who will challenge her and run amok. Will all differences be set aside in time for Christmas dinner? I wonder...
Anthony Byrne, the film's director, puts together How About You as though he were pulling its parts out of a do-it-urself kit. Connect Part A, spirited young girl lands in the place where old hams go to die, to Part B, conflict ensues, to Part C, coots visit local village and turn into unlikely eccentrics -- you'll ask yourself, how did the secretive old spinster's paintings come to inhabit the local pub? -- end up at Part D, oldsters melt and become warm and funny characters who just needed a little bit of tough love.
I didn't want to start off 2009 in a grouchy mood, but this wooden and cliched excuse for a film just made me feel angry and bitter and old...
How About You opens January 9, 2009.