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Wildlife **

by Ruben Rosario

A curiously uninvolving portrait of desperate lives set in small-town Montana in the early 1960s, Paul Dano's directing debut aims for kitchen sink realism but never quite overcomes a theatrical archness that's off-putting and consistently distracting. 

Is it worth $10? No 

What's it like to be the son of Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan? After seeing “Wildlife,” the glum and fussy domestic drama from versatile indie darling Paul Dano, I'm still left wondering. This fairly ambitious misfire, based on a novel by Richard Ford, asks viewers to buy the Oscar nominees as the parents of Ed Oxenbould, who played the insufferable brat with a penchant for hip-hop in M. Night Shyamalan's “The Visit.” Let's just say adolescence has not been kind to the burgeoning actor.

Oxenbould's conspicuously gawky looks, which make him look like Dax Shepard's love child, is not the only problem plaguing Dano's precious period piece, but it makes for a lousy first impression. He plays Joe Brinson (Oxenbould), recently relocated with Mom, Jeanette (Mulligan) and Dad, Jerry (Gyllenhaal) to Great Falls, Montana, circa 1960. One detects a certain fatigue from mother and son, trapped as silent witnesses to Jerry's inability to keep a job.

It's no different this time. His boss at the country club lets him go after he becomes too chummy with the clientele on the golf course, but what's more telling is what happens when his employer reconsiders. Jeanette, all perky drive and backbone, offers to look for a job when Jerry declines to take his back. She eventually lands a gig as a swim instructor. Still, Joe intuits something is off about his parents. Their interaction might appear to be placid and mundane on the surface, but there's a walking-on-eggshells quality to the three actors' scenes together. This halting awkwardness might convey familial discord, but it also makes it difficult for viewers to buy this trio as a nuclear unit.

The performances are nevertheless uniformly strong, with Mulligan the clear standout, but the characters are never quite allowed to coalesce into the setting. It's almost as if cinematographer Diego García's impeccably crafted interiors and production designer Akin McKenzie's meticuously assembled sets operate at a different speed than the cast. And therein lines what's really puzzling about “Wildlife”: The harder Dano tries to make the movie feel cinematic (and boy, does he!), the more stagy it feels.

Even when the film takes an intriguing turn, Dano's fussy mise en scene kept this reviewer at arm's length. Compelled by his duty to provide for his loved ones, but really more as a means of escape, Jerry takes a risky job fighting the forest fire that burns uncontrolled just north of Great Falls, leaving an increasingly anguished Jeanette manning the home front. The reawakening that Mulligan's character experiences is by far the most effective part of “Wildlife.” Rather than keep the formal homemaker/child relationship intact, Jeanette invites her son to see her, not just a mother, but as an individual with wants, needs and aspirations. Even as she remains reined in by the gender inequality of the period (it might be 1960, but in this part of Montana, it's still very much the '50s), Jeanette finds herself liberated by her newfound independence.

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And so Jeanette chooses to carry on a courtship with one of her swimming students: the well-off Warren Miller (the esteemed Bill Camp, rather underused), who owns a local car dealership. A bewildered Joe watches as his mother, dressed provocatively, makes the moves on the considerably older man. Oxenbould, the audience surrogate here, becomes a powerless spectator to this dance of seduction. Dano, working from the screenplay he co-wrote with Zoe Kazan, wisely refrains from passing judgment on the characters' actions, even when they're not exactly acting wisely or even in their own best interests. He also feels compelled to spell everything out in humorless Amerindie 101-style.

And just when “Wildlife” threatens to break free from its mannered, buttoned-up trappings, it returns to its earlier scheduled programming. Accusations are made, resentments are laid bare, and it all feels like an extended actors' exercise. It's reminiscent of another dysfunctional family drama from another actor who stepped behind the camera: Robert Redford's “Ordinary People.” But that movie was able to transcend its collective psychotherapy approach to marital malaise. Dano's rookie stumble, try as it might, is never able to get under your skin. It OD's on ennui.

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