Do you cry when you see public service announcements for animal shelters? What about Hallmark commercials? Maybe Pampers ads get you choked up. Or those feel-good up close and personal bios of Olympic athletes that chronicle the seemingly insurmountable odds they’ve battled to finally make it to the games. If any of these trigger your water works, then you may be just the target audience for Mark Pellington’s maudlin new meditation on loss, Nostlagia — a movie that’s so manipulative it practically jimmies the tears out of your eyes with a crow bar.
Here’s the thing: The movie is effective. But that’s not quite the same as it being good. Despite a few finely polished performances from John Ortiz, Ellen Burstyn, Catherine Keener, and James LeGros, it’s a schmaltzy wallow through the stages of mourning. And after a while, I started to resent the movie even though I knew it wasn’t half bad.
Nostalgia weaves together a few interlocking stories that all, in one way or another, deal with death, loss, and the question of what is left behind after we pass away. The opening chapter follows Daniel (Ortiz), an empathetic insurance adjuster making his depressing rounds visiting Ronnie (Bruce Dern), an elderly man who’s so close to end of the line that his daughter has his personal possessions appraised while he’s sitting right there. Then Daniel moves on to comfort widowed Helen (Burstyn), rummaging through the embers of her burned-down house for keepsakes that belonged to her late husband.
Good grief — emphasis on grief.
Shamelessly sentimental and downright depressing, the next thread of the story follows Will (Jon Hamm), a Las Vegas collectibles dealer who consoles Helen as he takes her late husband’s prized possession off of her hands. It was here that I cried foul: I’ve met many collectibles dealers in my life and none of them are remotely compassionate or interested in the emotional well-being of the seller. (He also appraises her Ted Williams signed baseball for $80,000 to $100,000, which is about $70,000 to $90,000 too high…and if it’s not, please let me know, because I have one and this could mean I’ll be spending next winter on a yacht in the Caribbean).
Still, Nostalgia saves its biggest sucker punch for its last segment, when Will and his sister Donna (Keener) and brother-in-law Patrick (LeGros) deal with a tragedy that’s too heartbreaking and senseless for words. I’ll leave it at that. I suppose there are people who go to the movies to have a good cry. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it would be nice to not feel like you’ve been mugged in the process. As it is, Nostalgia is a movie where a bunch of talented actors are trapped in two hours of bereavement porn. C