They say the guys who feel guilty about going to strip clubs are reminded of their daughters, or at least that the gals doing their thing are someone else's daughter. Though I doubt the Spearmint Rhino is going to lose any business after the release of Welcome To The Rileys. It is about one particular father, a grieving wife and the New Orleans "dancer" who is about the same age as their daughter was when she perished in a fiery car crash. Grasping onto surrogate family figures is not a new method of psychological healing in the cinema and Rileys certainly doesn't cover any new territory. But thanks to an earnest performance by James Gandolfini anchoring it, we can almost forget the weight of Kristen Stewart dragging it down with every hair flip and tug.
Gandolfini plays Doug Riley, successful in the plumbing racket, who leaves his agoraphobic wife, Lois (Melissa Leo) at home during his weekly poker game. Poker including cards, chips and the waitress who serves him waffles at the nearby diner. When another tragedy in his life brings him around to the cemetery where his daughter is buried, he notices that Lois has already bought their headstone. So, on a business trip to New Orleans, he announces to Lois that he is going to be spending some extra time down there. This decision is partially inspired by his wife pre-planning him for an early grave (as he reminds her), but also by meeting Mallory (Stewart). Naturally, that's not her stripper name.
Doug doesn't want anything she is offering. Maybe because he senses she is underage or perhaps the implications of all the noticeable bruises on her body, but we all know the real reason is in the resemblance. After escorting Mallory to her home on the rundown side of town, Doug spends the night and returns the next day with a proposition. Instead of staying at just another hotel (which he claims to hate), he will pay her $100 a day to live at her place. Not a bad deal as it comes with Doug's handyman services, but also with a father figure that is going to show her how to make a bed, clean clothes and watch her mouth. Meanwhile, Lois is not content to just let her marriage fall apart and she plots a course outside her house for the first time in years.
This last bit, while redeeming itself once Lois arrives, is a microcosm of where Rileys goes wrong in fully bringing us in emotionally. Up to Lois' trek, the screenplay by Ken Hixon (Grandview U.S.A., Morgan Stewart's Coming Home) hits a generally solemn note in setting up the couple's grief and the introduction into the relationship with Mallory. Not exactly uplifting, but certainly not something we needed rescuing from with comic relief. Watching this shattered woman, carrying years of guilt and knowledge of her husband's extramarital activities, have to struggle with automatic car seats and air bags, is a little disconcerting and greatly disrespectful to the character. We're already being asked to care about this woman's emotional well being. We shouldn't be worried whether or not she is going to make it from Indiana to New Orleans on the road in one piece in the name of misplaced chuckles. It calls to attention an uneasy realization that the film's connection with women is a bit disingenuous and insulting.
Things get better for Lois once she survives her road trip and reacts appropriately to Doug's master plan for ingratiating himself into Mallory's life. Melissa Leo is too good of an actress to allow Lois to just be another caricature of a psychologically submissive housewife. The same can't be said for Kristen Stewart though. Set aside how grown up she has become since Panic Room to be taking on more adult material (she has offered herself sexually one way or another in The Cake Eaters, Into the Wild and in some vampire series about abstinence, amongst others), it doesn't mean she has matured as a performer. Someone must remind her that if you are going to resort to a bag of tricks, the proverbial pouch must be pluralized with material. Hair-grabbing, protruding your face in anger and making an unprovoked bounce in-between thoughts may be more than one trick in expression, but they are singularly Stewart. And the more they turn up, especially when acting alongside one pro becomes two, it turns Mallory into a caricature of Stewart's entire resume instead of becoming her own genuine character.
Distractions like that aside, Welcome To The Rileys, is a bit better than the sum of its distractions. The inherent creepiness of a 50-ish guy who lays pipe for a living trying to take the sugar out of the daddy is reduced thanks to Gandolfini's turn as Doug. It is a continued testament to the actor who has quickly left Tony Soprano in his wake (especially with his varied work in last year's In The Loop and Where The Wild Things Are) that we are able to understand Doug's every intention to live out, even just a little, of what he missed out on during his daughter's likely rebellious stage. If director Jake Scott (son of Ridley, helming his first feature since 1999's Plunkett and Macleane) had concentrated more on Doug's metaphor for lost fatherhood or had cast an actress that could connect with us in the quiet moments instead of just the rebellious ones, Rileys could have had the emotional payoff it was seeking. It is almost worth recommending for the honest moments turned in by Gandolfini and Leo, but the bizarre shifts in tone and the single-note communication by Stewart -- that she is most certainly not the daughter produced by these two great actors -- leaves us a little too hollow in the end.