Some young actors yearn for that flashy role in a blockbuster movie that will prove their bankability
to a doubting Hollywood. Kristen Stewart, on the other hand, seems determined to accentuate her anti-star bona fides, delivering aggressively affectless interviews and bracketing this summer’s $300 million–earning Twilight: Eclipse with two grittier roles in movies seemingly chosen for their dim commercial prospects.
In this past spring’s Runaways, Stewart was as flat as a pancake, but still, somehow, fascinating to watch as the young Joan Jett, a stretched-tight canvas upon which Dakota Fanning and Michael Shannon could paint the future.
But Jake Scott’s Welcome to the Rileys is so underwritten that, despite a more energetic performance, Stewart makes much less of an impression. She’s not exactly playing a hooker with a heart of gold, but she is playing a hooker, named Mallory, and the movie’s got something to do with her heart—though a lot more to do with her bad-girl vibe, and with her mouth and what it looks like when a payload of F-bombs drops out of it. Try as Stewart might, she can’t turn this Manic Trixie Nightmare Girl into a real person.
Rileys follows middle-aged schlub Doug Riley (James Gandolfini in Dad jeans) from Indianapolis to the Crescent City. Still mourning a teenage daughter lost a few years back—as well as another, more recent loss—Doug ditches his plumbing convention to hang out with 16-year-old exotic dancer Mallory. Their relationship remains resolutely uncarnal, as he fixes her toilet, buys her clean sheets, and picks her up from tricks gone bad.
There’s no mystery to what Doug’s doing, and the blunt motivation makes this sad ex-father, whom Gandolfini saddles with a drawl that won’t stay put, sympathetic but not particularly interesting. Gandolfini underplays accordingly.
Though dull, the relationship between Doug and Mallory can be sweet, and Scott directs unobtrusively and has a nice eye for detail. The son of Ridley and nephew of Tony, he exhibits little of the visual flair of his forebears—THANK GOD—and lets New Orleans speak for itself.
Doug’s wife, Lois (Melissa Leo), agoraphobic since their daughter’s death, gathers her courage and follows her wayward husband south. Surprisingly, given the indignities visited upon her early in Ken Hixon’s screenplay—watch the freakshow try to drive!—Lois becomes Rileys’ most compelling character, thanks mostly to Leo, who in the face of her co-stars’ opacity gives a transparent performance. Lois is incapable of hiding her emotions; Leo plays her as someone who’s too exhausted even to try.
Thanks to Leo and the way she brings Gandolfini to attention in their scenes together, the movie is at its wisest when it explores the Rileys’ strained 30-year marriage, and exults in that marriage’s gentle renewal amid the squalor of Mallory’s shitty row house. And so the best moments of Welcome to the Rileys don’t include its most bankable star at all. Well played, Kristen Stewart. An anti-star is born.