'Ithaca': EW review
Most of the headlines around Meg Ryan’s directorial debut, Ithaca, have focused on the fact that it reunites Ryan with her frequent costar Tom Hanks. But instead of giving the dynamic pair something to work with on screen, this adaptation of William Saroyan’s novel The Human Comedy reduces Hanks to what is essentially a spectral cameo, playing Ryan’s dead husband in a handful of mostly wordless scenes. In all, Hanks’ casting feels like a missed opportunity—much like the rest of Ithaca.
Saroyan’s novel first hit the big screen with a 1943 adaptation starring Mickey Rooney, and in Ryan’s version, relative newcomer Alex Neustaedter steps into the role of 14-year-old Homer Macauley, living in the early days of World War II with his mother (Ryan), his sister (Christine Nelson), and his 4-year-old brother Ulysses (an adorable Spencer Howell). Homer’s older brother, Marcus (Ryan’s real-life son Jack Quaid), has gone off to war, and he spends most of the film writing lengthy, philosophical letters to Marcus, heard in long-winded voiceover.
Eager to support his family and find a sense of purpose, Homer gets a job at the local telegram company, setting out to be the fastest delivery boy Ithaca has ever seen. He hits it off immediately with his rakish boss (Hamish Linklater) and the grumpy, perpetually-drunk telegraph operator (Sam Shepard), but Homer soon learns that much of his job involves delivering telegrams to the families of soldiers who’ve been killed in the war.
It doesn’t take much to figure out how this is going to play out, and instead of stretching the already thin plot, Ryan takes more of a slice-of-life approach, following Homer as he explores Ithaca on his bicycle and grapples with existential questions about growing up and the tragedy of war. A memorable and folky score from John Mellencamp keeps things moving along, but clunky dialogue and an overreliance on voiceover prevent Ithaca from ever becoming more than a predictable period piece. C+