(2008)3Mark DemingUnless you're Clint Eastwood or Betty White, Hollywood doesn't have much use for actors over the age of 65 these days, at least not on the big screen, and for performers of a certain age who want to keep working, you have to take what you can get. Martin Landau, born in 1928, won an Academy Award in 1995 for his performance as an aging and cranky Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's Ed Wood, and Ellen Burstyn, born in 1932, took home an Oscar for her work as a middle-aged woman addicted to television and diet pills in Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream. However, while both actors have stayed busy since taking home their trophies, most of the better roles they've earned have been on television rather than in feature films, and it says a lot about the current state of the movie business that these gifted artists give their strongest screen performances in years in Lovely, Still, an independent film that's gone into limited release after bouncing around the film-festival circuit for two years, and plays more like a middling small-screen project that an ambitious feature film.
Landau stars as Robert Malone, an elderly man who works in a grocery store and has a small but comfortable home in Omaha, NE. Robert is lonely and clearly feeling his advancing age lately -- he sometimes forgets to close the door after leaving for work, he leaves himself Post-it notes to remind himself of tasks around the house, and he's crashed his car into the door of his garage, leaving both the mangled door and the car in the driveway ever since. A few days before Christmas, Robert comes home from work to discover his door is open and a woman roughly his age is looking around the house. At first Robert panics, but the woman introduces herself as someone new to the neighborhood, Mary (Burstyn), and they strike up a conversation. Mary clearly seems fond of Robert, and she soon asks him to join her for dinner. Robert says yes, but he hasn't been on a date in years, and nervously asks most of the people at the store for advice, including Mike (Adam Scott), the market's absurdly egocentric manager. Despite Mike's advice, Robert and Mary have a wonderful evening, and by the end of the week Robert is ready to propose to Mary, feeling more alive than he has in years. However, Mary's daughter, Alex (Elizabeth Banks), is against Mary seeing Robert, and we learn why after it becomes clear Robert's forgetfulness is a sign of something more serious.
Watching Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn play off each other in Lovely, Still is a pleasure, and they're both good enough to nearly overcome the fact that Nik Fackler's first feature film is beneath their talents. Fackler's screenplay is far too sentimental in the early innings, and most of the time Lovely, Still feels like a sweetly predictable TV project that should be playing on the Hallmark or Lifetime cable channels during the holiday season rather than in a theater. Even the film's twist ending seems curiously telegraphed, as if we knew something awful had to happen, though the shift of gears doesn't happen quite as we'd been led to expect. But Landau carries this story capably as the befuddled but genuinely likeable Robert Malone, who blooms as he finds love again, and if Ellen Burstyn has less to do, she seems radiant, joyous and beautiful well past traditional retirement age. They easily outshine Adam Scott, whose Mike seems to be some ill-conceived fusion of Dwight Schrute and Michael Scott in his misguided self-importance, and Elizabeth Banks as Alex, who unfortunately isn't asked to do much besides be pretty and look worried. Landau and Burstyn make their relationship seem honest and affecting even as their surroundings are cloying, and the fine camerawork from Sean Kirby and production design from Stephen Altman give the film a subtly rich look that suits its Yuletide setting. The score by Nate Walcott and Mike Mogis of the indie rock group Bright Eyes is good but sounds like an effort to add a patina of hipness to a story that's old-fashioned at heart (and not necessarily in a bad way). That sums up much of what flaws Lovely, Still has -- but when it focuses on the love story between Robert and Mary and lets Landau and Burstyn show how good they are, it's a simple but satisfying late-in-life love story. It's when Nik Fackler tries to make it into something more that it runs off-course.
There's a moment where Robert and Mary are having dinner at a fancy restaurant, and Robert confesses that his entrée looks great on the plate, but could taste a lot better. Perhaps Fackler should have trusted the character's instincts over his own.