Balancing uneasily on the thin tightrope between wrenching family drama and Hallmark Hall of Fame sentimentality, writer-director Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had is a tricky movie to critique without sounding heartless or downright churlish. While it’s loaded with excellent ensemble performances and flashes of real poignancy, it can’t seem to help itself from occasionally jack-knifing into heavy-handed wrong turns that can play as clichéd or phony. It’s half of a great movie.
An intergenerational, three-hankie weeper, Chomko’s film stars Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon as the concerned adult children of a mother (Blythe Danner) who’s sliding into Alzheimer’s. Her devoted, adoring husband (played by a stand-out Robert Forster) is an old-school, tough-love Chicago Catholic. Still, when it comes to his ailing wife, he’s a softie. Which is probably why he can’t bring himself to acknowledge the ways in which she’s deteriorating, even after she wanders out of their apartment in the middle of the night into a blizzard wearing nothing but a nightgown. He loves her so much that he can’t imagine life apart from her. Which, unfortunately for him, is exactly what Shannon and Swank (with her college drop-out daughter in tow, played by Taissa Farmiga) arrive to tell him.
The two adult siblings — with Swank as good cop and Shannon as prickly bad cop — want their mother to move into a memory care facility. As they bicker and argue with each other about the best way to get their father to sign on with their plan, the overly busy plot lards on layers of subplot about their own respective relationship problems, diluting the film’s powerful central theme into something that feels too sprawling. If that plot description makes What They Had sound like an unbearable downer, or just a more populated version of Julianne Moore’s Still Alice, it’s worth pointing out that all of the heaviness is leavened with enough screwball laughter-through-tears moments to make it not feel like a wallow (sadly, the biggest laugh comes from an unforgivably on-the-nose bit of symbolism at the end). Make no mistake, though, if it’s a good cry you’re after, What They Had will more than do the trick. I just wish that this particular tearjerker jerked its tears with something subtler than a crowbar. B-