Welcome to the Rileys is a drama with good intentions, but like the generation gap it portrays, it is thrown off balance by the chasm of experience. It stars James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo as a couple who have been married for nearly three decades. Eight years ago, their teenage daughter was killed in a car accident, and things haven't been right since. For one thing, the mother, Lois Riley, hasn't left her house in all that time. Looking for distraction, her husband, Doug, is a successful businessman who thinks nothing of losing a thousand dollars in a poker game. For the last four years, he's chased the cards with waffles, and he has been having an affair with the waitress (Eisa Davis) at his regular diner.
Doug begins to lose his grip on things when his mistress dies unexpectedly just before they are supposed to go on a trip to New Orleans. He has a convention to attend, so he takes the trip anyway. While there, he happens into a strip club where he meets Mallory (Kristen Stewart), a runaway with an uncanny resemblance to his daughter. Once he's convinced her he's not a cop, he offers Mallory $100 a day to let him stay in her house. He makes quick plans to sell his business and phones Lois to let her know he's not coming home. Soon, he's fixing up Mallory's place and buying her a new bed.
Thankfully, there is nothing skeevy going on in Doug and Mallory's arrangement. He really just wants to be a father, and his behavior is surprisingly sweet. Gandolfini is a big man, but he's a gifted actor and can play against his size. Doug's behavior is endearing, and the actor brings a gentleness to the performance that adds to how touching his kindness can be. The whole thing actually baffles Mallory, who only understands how to relate with men if it's some sort of transaction. Doug not wanting her body is the most bizarre thing she's ever heard, and it puts her on her guard. It's hard for her to open up.
I've been trying to decide for a while if Kristen Stewart is a good actress or not. She has a certain enigmatic allure that made her attractive in Adventureland but questionable in The Runaways. Is she mysterious because she's really good at being mysterious, or is there really nothing going on behind those big eyes? (I haven't seen any of the Twilight films, though I doubt they demand much by way of thespian rigor.) Based on Welcome to the Rileys, I may have to finally kick my decision over to the "bad actress" column. I don't find her convincing as Mallory. The actress likes to play the rebel, but she doesn't have the ability to portray the riotous soul that a true rebel requires. Not that I want to hang it all on her. Screenwriter Ken Hixon (Inventing the Abbots, City by the Sea) writes some truly awful dialogue for the character. I get that she's supposed to be a brat, but there really needed to be more here for the movie to succeed at its goal of portraying something deeper than pity parenthood.
Luckily, the other central relationship in Welcome to the Rileys is much more convincing. Doug's abandonment ends up being the impetus Lois needs to finally break out of her prison of grief. Smartly, it's not a leap she makes immediately, there are a couple of baby steps and speed bumps along the way. Melissa Leo gives a tender, heartfelt turn, and she gets one phenomenal scene in a truck stop where she gets to show just how agile she is at complex, shifting emotions. The relationship between Doug and Lois is appropriately mature, and it takes a pair of actors who have been around the block a couple of times to pull it off. By sheer force of talent, they keep Welcome to the Rileys afloat even as the increasing dominance of Mallory attempts to sink it.
It also helps that the movie takes a smart route to its conclusion. All Welcome to the Rileys needed was a predictable happy ending to drown the narrative for good. Hixon stays true to the movie's heart, and the director doesn't challenge that in order to make a crowd pleaser. Welcome to the Rileys was directed by Jake Scott, who hasn't helmed a full-length motion picture since 1999's Plunkett & Macleane. He has clearly calmed down in the last ten years, trading that movie's exuberance and flash for a far more down-to-earth style. This isn't a movie where camera moves jump out at you or editing that tries to force the story into places it doesn't belong; nor does Scott overly contrive its realism. Rather, Scott takes a more confident approach: his style is to avoid really having one. That's not a criticism or an insult; he lets the fundamentals rule the day, and it serves the movie well.
Ultimately, Welcome to the Rileys ends in a good place. It uplifts without being manipulative, and though it maybe could have gone deeper into some of the issues it raises about the way people move on from tragedy, at least it doesn't hit us over the head with easy answers. Quiet personal movies like this one are easy to lose track of at the big multiplexes, but they are properly served at home. Go ahead and give Welcome to the Rileys a chance if it comes your way.
Welcome to the Rileys is released on Blu-Ray as a warm 1080p transfer in the movie's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The film retains a realistic look throughout, with nice textures and generally rich colors. It's in the washed-out elements, though, that you really see the strength of the digital work and the production design. Mallory's rundown New Orleans home is appropriately nondescript. We see the damage in perfect detail, but it's not overdone. Likewise, the efforts to dress Kristen Stewart down, letting her pale skin show all the acne and bruises of her teenaged character, reveals how nicely rendered the photography is. There is a big difference between her skin tone and the healthier faces of the pair trying to help her out.
The soundtrack is mixed in 5.1 DTS Master Audio, and it sounds good, though it's not particularly nuanced. Most of the activity is right down the middle, which is fine for a dialogue driven drama like this. Even so, there was room to play around, and it would have been nice had we gotten a little more of the city's ambient noise in the back speakers.
Subtitle options include English, English Closed Captioning, and French.
Welcome to the Rileys has one bonus feature, a making-of documentary called "Creating the Rileys," presented in high-definition and stereo. At just over 11 minutes, it's a cursory promo piece, with Hixon, Scott, Gandolfini, Stewart, Leo, and producers discussing the basics of how the movie came about and their feelings about it.
Trailers for The Tourist and Nowhere Boy are tacked onto the disc. There is also an option for BD-Live, but as of this writing, there wasn't any content to be found.
Recommended, but only just. Welcome to the Rileys really walks the fence. James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo sell this movie with everything they've got, pushing the middling script a far as they can. Had the narrative delved deeper into some of the emotional issues it approaches, and had the writer had a better handle on how to write troubled young people or the director known how to direct a hollow screen presence like Kristen Stewart, then Welcome to the Rileys could have really been something. Still, if we stop knocking around the "what ifs" and look at what is there instead, we find a whole lot worth liking and a movie that does drop some emotional heft even if it's into a somewhat shallow pool. Keep an eye out for it.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.