Mark Pellington’s contemplative fugue Nostalgia might have been called Stuff or Inheritance. An episodic ensemble drama organized around the logic of theme rather than of traditional narrative, the film concerns above all else accumulation and dispersal, in the American vein. Pellington’s subject is the sorting that families find themselves facing as relatives age or die. Here are the homes clotted with a lifetime’s worth of possessions, some treasure and some junk. Here are middle-aged children renting dumpsters as they dig into all that their parents have left behind – furniture and tchotchkes, sets of dishware it might tear your heart out to donate, photographs and love letters and maybe an heirloom. Here’s an insurance agent (John Ortiz) who surveys the belongings of the aged with an eye toward material value: Might some priceless rarity lurk beneath the piles of paper in a widower’s (Bruce Dern) firetrap apartment? Here’s that same agent, later, guiding us to something like the opposite of that situation. He stands in the ashes of a home, with the widow (Ellen Burstyn) who faced an impossible choice: In the moment she realized her house would burn, what should she grab?
Pellington, who came up with the story with screenwriter Alex Ross Perry, is something of an appraiser himself, holding his subject up to the light and studying its angles. To that end, we meet the man who hoards, the woman who has lost everything, the offspring who balk at the thought of dealing with their parents’ detritus (“So it all falls on me because I live the closest?” sighs Amber Tamblyn’s Bethany), and, eventually, the man who purchases the keepsakes that are indisputably of value. He’s played by Jon Hamm, and the movie wends slowly to him, moving along a chain of provenance — of ownership and receivership but also pain, guilt and, on occasion, intergenerational connection.
Pellington opens this vital, restless, insightful film with that insurance agent, follows him on a pair of cases and lets him muse some about the themes before the story shifts to Burstyn’s character. After the loss of her home, she bristles at having to bunk up in a spare room at the home of her son (Nick Offerman). You probably would, too, considering the way that son carps about the couple of items she managed to pull from the fire — some jewelry and an old baseball that her long-gone husband had revered.
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“It’s something that makes no sense to her that she can’t detach herself from,” her son complains. That’s typical of Perry’s dialogue, which holds to a philosophical register, sometimes at the expense of convincing about the particulars. One character describes the items clung to by the aged as “our artifacts, our scars,” a bit of poetry made redundant by the production design and Pennington’s foregrounding of objects and his cast’s thoughtful regarding of them. We can see how memory and meaning freight this stuff, how hard it is to cull, even for an avowedly unsentimental character like Catherine Keener’s Donna. She sits on the floor of her parents' house with her brother Will (Hamm), steeling herself for a weekend of pitching and salvaging, and can’t comprehend why her teenage daughter (Annalise Basso) has no interest in helping. The young woman didn’t grow up with this stuff and feels no attachment to it — she doesn’t sense her grandmother and grandfather in it. (Donna, of course, eventually will wind up putting much of this stuff in a storage locker.)
We meet Will when Burstyn’s character brings that baseball to his Las Vegas sports memorabilia shop. Pennington and his actors wring terrific suspense from the question of whether the ball is worth something to anyone outside the family. Hamm and Burstyn give layered, revealing performances as each character tries warily to hold back some truths — to complete the transaction without her believing she has dishonored her husband’s memory or robbed her own children’s inheritance. Will plies her with a tender speech about her needing to do what’s best for her, and while its essence is true, you might worry, watching, that he’s cheating her. Then she’s gone, and the movie belongs to Hamm and Keener, whose characters command its more conventional back half.
Keener, typically, is excellent as a woman annoyed at the task ahead of her but also moved by it — and excited at the opportunity to spend so much time with her brother, who lives out of state. They crab at each other but know what matters most: One virtue of the film’s unorthodox structure is that we’re spared the usual dust-ups and misunderstandings that pad out family dramas. These two don’t get into a fight, but their hugs at the end still matter. Keener, as always, is excellent, a shrewd actor adept at revealing what her characters might not realize they’re revealing. Eventually, she must plumb the depths of grief, and the effect is something like watching a member of your actual family collapse and then pull herself together and keep pressing on.
This is Hamm’s best big-screen role, one that takes advantage of his sharkish and ruminative streaks. Mad Men fans will appreciate moments in which Don Draper has a reverie by a swimming pool or contemplates slides that capture family memories. (That’s a nostalgic sight itself.) His Will is gently prickly, a little aloof, driven my money rather than sentiment — and spared from having to learn the lessons three-act screenwriting usually imposes upon such characters. He’s not a great brother, but he’s a good enough one, there when the family needs him. It doesn’t take an epiphany or a cloying redemptive arc to get him to do what’s right. If you’re expecting him to question, in the final scenes, the meaning of having bought that baseball, you’re too used to dumber, less honest movies.