Tonal balance might be the most important part of a film. Typically, comedies should feel like comedies, dramas like dramas, action like action, etc. The tones of a film can change, but it’s up to the writers, directors, actors, and others to make sure that those shifts aren’t jarring for the audience and that they don’t break an otherwise effective film. A middling film can be elevated with a consistent or well balanced tone or it can be sunk by a crushingly misplaced or misapplied timbre.
What They Had definitely falls in the latter category.
The film begins with a pretty horrifying view of what it’s like to watch a family member deteriorate from Alzheimer’s. Ruth Ertz (Blythe Danner) wanders off in the middle of the night on Christmas morning into a snowstorm-addled Chicago street. Her husband Burt (Robert Forster) and his son Nicky (Michael Shannon) panic as she doesn’t turn up for hours — leading Nicky’s type-A sister Bridget (Hilary Swank) to fly into town from California to help with the family. Ruth eventually turns up, but Nicky and Burt clash over what the family should do with her: Nicky believes she belongs in a memory care facility while Burt believes she is already in the best possible situation at home with him. It’s up to Bridget, who has power of attorney, to find a solution… but she’s struggling through her own personal life issues as she feels stuck in a loveless relationship with her husband and struggles to connect with her daughter in college.
The whole film plays out as you’d expect with Nicky and Burt as the angel and devil on Bridget’s shoulder and with her learning lots of lessons about parenting and relationships through her experience. When the film focuses on this more straightforward drama, it’s fairly effective — Swank, Forster, Danner, and Shannon are among the best in the business, so letting their performances do the emotional heavy lifting is very much playing to What They Had’s biggest strengths. It’s when the film dabbles in comedy or when it begins overplaying its hand that it comes to a screeching halt. Things like the fact that the dad has a convertible muscle car that the roof is permanently down, Swank’s silly side-adventure into maybe possibly having an affair with someone from her past, or an interminable scene at Christmas mass where Ruth flips the bird at fellow members of the congregation (among other “hilarious” pratfalls) are so painfully unfunny and irritating that it completely undermines all of the attempted weightiness of the film’s subject.
But that’s not to say all of the comedy beats fail. There’s one early in the film where Shannon1 — who is absolutely stellar and steals every second he’s onscreen in his part as an everyman bar owner struggling with an overbearing father and the pain of watching his mother deteriorate — has an “incident” with his mother on the drive home from the hospital and Swank’s Bridget teases him about it. It immediately establishes the two characters’ relationship while also being, y’know, really funny. When said “incident” rears its head again later in the film, this time in a much more difficult and melodramatic moment, it’s just as gut-wrenchingly painful as it was amusing in the first act.
But those well-written moments are few and far between. The number of times a scene involves Nicky and Burt arguing loudly and one of them, or Bridget, interrupts the argument to remind them to be quit so as to not “wake up mom” is drinking game worthy. Too often, What They Had relies on either broad comedy moments when Danner’s Alzheimer’s caricature2 wanders into the frame to either say something quirky — “lol mom said something silly because she’s slowly losing her mind and forgets what she forgot a minute ago and isn’t this existential horror high-larious.” — or scenes where Ruth struggles to remember something while all the other characters sit around crying. The film only manages to muddle the tones of the film further by going full bore into a maudlin finale that reaches its peak with a scene so overwrought and ham-handed that it almost becomes cringe worthy. Which is only further compounded by a final scene that was supposed to be comedic yet profound but only comes across as unintentionally hilarious in the dumbest possible ways.
The strong performances, particularly by Shannon and Forster who benefit from being the only characters with consistently defined motivations, aren’t enough to salvage What They Had. The humor isn’t funny enough to make up for how jarringly out of place it is and the serious family drama is too cliched and unengaging. There’s too much artifice and emotionally sweeping melodrama for it to work as a “realistic” depiction of the events, nor is there enough darkness to the proceedings for it to work as a drama. For a film about the inevitability of death and decline at the end of life, What They Had is too bubbly for its own good.
- not THAT Shannon
- Danner does her best, but there’s no way to make Ruth work as a character because she’s so inconsistent in how the film wants to use her