BY KHALILAH WALTERS
I’ll admit that Winter Passing made some shameless plays for my sympathies early on. It tucked Cat Power’s “Nude as the News” into its soundtrack in one of the early scenes. Plus, it was all too effective in bringing on a wave of nostalgia for the streets and sensibilities of downtown New York City, in particular the East Village. Even so, the film does hold its own.
Winter Passing was written and directed by Adam Rapp, whose brother, Anthony Rapp of Rent fame, has a cameo appearance. The film stars Zooey Deschanel as Reese Holden, a struggling actress-slash-bartender who is a case study in foggy dysfunction as she drifts through life sniffing coke, sleeping around, and running away from stylishly angsty boys. After a performance, Reese is approached by an aggressive literary agent who offers her a small fortune in return for the details of the early epistolary romance of her famous writer parents. Reese embarks on a trip home to her estranged and reclusive widower father, broodingly played by Ed Harris. There, she finds her father has taken in new company: Corbit (Will Ferrell), an ex-Christian rocker-turned-caretaker, and Shelley, a former student of her father’s who may or may not be his lover.
If you’re looking for a big bang, forget it. This is a film that lugubriously moseys along in its own sweet time. And it doesn’t seem terribly preoccupied with its audience, for the most part. Not until the second act does it get the bright idea to relate to the moviegoer, and then it’s a mixed blessing. It is hard to treat family dysfunction in film without degenerating into a mawkish, maudlin mess, and the plot does evolve into a predictable tale of family dysfunction, recovery and reconciliation. But to rake the film over the coals for this admitted flaw is to ignore that Winter Passing is character-driven fare not terribly concerned with plot per se.
Zooey Deschanel does a magnificent job turning in a very textured and nuanced performance as a multidimensional, sardonic, and suffering cynic. Reese is not always a sympathetic character. She is a downright bitch to ersatz-mother Shelley, but deservedly so: the pseudo-stepmother is a poison-worthy, annoying British twit. The Shelley-Reese dynamic is one of the film’s gems. Deschanel takes a role that could have been written with more discipline and milks it for what it’s worth with an intelligent and spot-on performance.
Other characters are also worth a look-see. Ed Harris does his best with the clichéd role of alcoholic, tortured writer. Will Ferrell manages to appear in a quasi-serious role not built around his usual ridiculous stuff, though his performance as an earnest man-nurse of sorts who is a bit on the slow side provides some ambiguously intentioned humor, especially in the scene where he warbles an Eagles’ tune at open mic. One other note: the set designs were awesome; the gritty New York apartment from which Reese unceremoniously evicts loverboy Ray after their bedroom antics and a cigarette was just right. So too the book-festooned, crumbling and chaotic home to which Reese returns for her surprise family reunion.
Winter Passing may fairly be attacked for plodding down the well-worn route of family dysfunction. Sometimes the film borrows from its main character: the self-mutilating bits of Reese’s character are writ large in Winter Passing, where editors left inexplicably odd scenes in that seem to have no purpose than to add a sense of randomness that is both unnecessary and distracting. Sometimes the simply-shot film comes across as a tad self-absorbed. And sometimes, the film is just too precious for its own good. But, ultimately, Winter Passing is worth the price of admission.