Legendary producer Sam Goldwyn supposedly said, in reference to movies with a message, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union". The writer-director of Winter Passing, playwright Adam Rapp, might well have heeded that warning. Take the film's poster: "Sometimes you go looking for what you want and find what you need." Next, check out the trailer: "Sometimes the hardest journey you can take is the one that takes you"... "Sometimes the people you need the most are the ones you know the least." Get the message?"
Winter Passing is Rapp's first film. Set in New York and the rural Midwest, it's the story of Reese Holden (Zooey Deschanel), a young aspiring actress living in a messy apartment with a sick kitten. She auditions, she acts, she snorts coke and has sex with one guy in a toilet, tells another to get lost the morning after. She mopes. A lot. Poor Reese. Oh, and she has a habit of slamming her fingers in desk drawers, presumably to blunt her psychic pain with a dose of the real thing. Something must really be wrong. "What are you so mad at?" asks one of her male friends, a fellow actor so frustrated with life in New York that he's ready to move to Colorado to be around real people and cows. And away, presumably, from the likes of Reese. Reese mopes some more. Plays the piano. Drowns her cat.
Reese's father, Don Holden (Ed Harris), is a National Book Award-winning writer who hasn't published a thing in years. Reese's mother, also a writer, is dead, and Reese didn't attend the funeral.
Following a performance, a book editor (Amy Madigan) accosts Reese at the stage door and offers her a large sum of money for a pack of letters exchanged between her parents long ago. She wants to publish them. Reese is noncommittal, and with the moral purity of the truly angry and depressed turns down air fare home and elects to take the bus.
Arriving at the family home, Reese is greeted at the door by Corbit (Will Ferrell), and is asked for I.D. Weirdo alert! Corbit is some kind of lost soul who showed up on Don Holden's couch one night and never left. A puppy dog kinda guy who's a few Kibbles short of a bag. Don himself lives in the garage, amidst piles of books, and clacks spasmodically at an ancient Underwood when he isn't having the DT's. Don is obviously, in addition to being a National Drinking Award-winning drunk, A Man in Pain.
Rounding out the household is Shelly (Amelia Warner), a former student of Don's who may or may not be sleeping with him. Familiar message: award-winning, drunken, self-pitying, blocked writers can still get laid. Or maybe not. Predictably, Shelly and Reese have at it. Ferrell's rendering of Corbit, who, it turns out, used to be in a rock band but couldn't play and sing at the same time, seems influenced by the actor's turn as an ersatz Woody Allen in Melinda and Melinda, prone to goofy, self-conscious, unfunny asides. Ferrell acts like he's not only wandered into Don Holden's life, he's also wandered onto the set of the film from the land of Odd. He's dazed, confused, paranoid, wears eyeliner, and most alarming, a Foreigner t-shirt. Corbit and Don play golf every day in an empty bedroom, wearing old football helmets and half the contents of the kitchen as armor. Meanwhile, the bedroom furniture sits in the back yard. Message: this is one fucked-up menage.
Family secrets are unearthed and buried again, wrongs are set right, but to little avail. Its array of positive messages and billing as a "dramedy" notwithstanding, Winter Passing is basically a bummer. The writing is superficially clever and stagey, the characters and situations forced and lacking credibility. The assumption seems to have been made that angst in and of itself is interesting. The lack of back story to the characters makes their actions inexplicable, and the gaps in the narrative are too wide to fill in. Ferrell, surely, was given a lot of leeway to ad-lib, as it's hard to believe anyone would have written a lot of what comes out of his mouth. Things are set right, at the end, by facile, familiar old road-trippy solutions.
Deschanel commits the least sins of all the actors, given what she has to work with. Her anger and bitterness are convincing enough, but they seem to exist in a vacuum. Harris does little but play the self-pitying drunk. Amelia Warner's character is boring, just another star-struck writer-groupie, and, lest I forget, like Reese's kitten she's sick too, only Reese doesn't drown her.
The twists of the plot are predictable, and the film has a paint-by-numbers quality. The sound track is suitably mopey and emo-heavy. Adam Rapp has filmed what is at best a first-draft screenplay. The film doesn't work. That is my message to you. Over and out.