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) standing 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 is something of an appraiser himself, holding his subject up to the light and studying its angles. Eventually, the film settles on its protagonists: a sister and brother played by Catherine Keener and Jon Hamm, charged with pitching and salvaging their parents' possessions. 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.
This is Hamm's best big-screen role, one that takes advantage of his sharkish and ruminative streaks.