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River Why, The

Image // PG-13 // November 8, 2011
List Price: $29.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 14, 2011 | E-mail the Author
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David James Duncan didn't just sue to have his name taken off this adaptation of The River Why; he did his damndest to prevent the filmmakers from using the title of his universally adored coming-of-age novel, period. After slogging my way
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through the movie -- which is finally clawing its way to DVD and Blu-ray after languishing for a couple years in limbo -- I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want my name anywhere near it either.

Fly fishing isn't something Gus (Zach Gilford) does. It's not a hobby or a pasttime; it's a fundamental part of who he is. At least on paper, the same holds true for his relentlessly squabbling parents (William Hurt and Kathleen Quinlan). For them, though, it's a joyless, solitary routine...a job, practically. Sooner or later, his pop's overbearing ego and pretentiousness collide head-on with Gus' shrill harpy of a mother one time too many, and Gus does the only thing he really can: he leaves home and doesn't look back. He sets out to indulge his one great love, renting a rickety shack and devoting nearly every waking hour to fly fishing. Gus makes just enough selling his lovingly crafted hand-tied flies to pay the rent, and he lives off of his catches. It's a simple but idyllic existence: one's that's soon challenged by first love, a firsthand view of death, and philosophical musings about religion and life. It's the story of Gus...well, becoming a man.

Next to nothing about this adaptation really works. As much as I liked Zach Gilford on Friday Night Lights, here he's a gaping black hole of charisma. There's nothing the least bit compelling or engaging about his take on Gus, and his pretentious, overwritten voiceover monologues sound as if he's reading the morning announcements over his high school's P.A. artificial and unconvincingly sincere. The acting in a few key supporting roles is so overplayed that it starts to feel like a local theater production, and even a seasoned hand like William Hurt starts gnawing on the scenery like an amateur. Despite the fact that Hurt's character is supposed to be of British descent, and his younger self in flashback speaks with a terrifically convincing accent, the adult 'H20' mutters with some sort of Austrian growl. I don't really know what's going on there. The heavy
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philosophical musings don't feel earned, as if they're being recited from memory but aren't believed, felt, or even understood. The River Why leans far too heavily on quirk as a crutch. I'm sure in the context of David James Duncan's original novel, these same elements feel earned and charming, but the way they're clumsily delivered here...? Oh, that dog just hopped up on a rocking chair! That adorable little boy said "garden angel" instead of "guardian angel"! That obnoxious professor speaks like a philosophy textbook from the 1920s! All of that feels stapled on to make middle-aged soccer moms clap with delight. Because the characters and their dialogue come across as so artificially constructed, it's difficult to escape into the film, and there isn't a sincere emotional undercurrent to sweep me away either. It doesn't help that the storytelling is so sloppy and disjointed.

Can I muster anything resembling a thumbs-up about The River Why...? Well, the cinematography is quietly serene and gorgeous. Although Kathleen Quinlan struggles with the role of Gus' mother early on, she acquits herself very well by the time the film draws to a close. Amber Heard is the only member of the cast with a significant amount of screentime who contributes a particularly strong performance. It's not the meatiest part -- a drop dead gorgeous quasi-tomboy who's close to nature and teaches Gus about life and love -- but she gives it her all, feeling more comfortable and natural in the part than anyone else in the film does. The young actors playing Gus' parents in flashback also make a strong impression, and it's a shame the more established actors playing the present day versions can't compare.

The River Why is just a poorly made movie, not really managing to succeed on any level and somehow making gifted, experienced actors seem hamfistedly amateurish. David James Duncan indicated at one point that he wanted to make his own adaptation of The River Why, and hopefully one day he'll get the chance. It's hard to imagine another take on the novel being any worse than this. Skip It.

Somewhat unexpectedly, The River Why is interlaced, something I hardly ever come across with feature films on Blu-ray. Perhaps that's why the movie looks somewhat more video-like in motion than I'm used to seeing on the format. Otherwise, The River Why is very much what you'd expect out of a digital production shot in 2008. The image is consistently crisp, clean, and colorful throughout. The day-for-night shots aren't particularly convincing, and even with as nicely detailed as the photography often is, there were times when I felt as if the level of clarity was falling just a bit short of where it ought to be. The River Why is still a nice enough looking disc, but considering that the movie was shot with the Red One and all, I can't fathom why this isn't a proper 1080p24 release.

The River Why is presented on a single layer Blu-ray disc and has been encoded with AVC.

The River Why boasts a fairly meek six-channel, 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. There's no heft at all to the lower frequencies, and the overall fidelity and clarity aren't all that far removed from what I'd expect to hear on DVD. The rear channels are largely reserved for reinforcing those gently plucked acoustic guitars and the rush of water heading downstream. Even for a quiet, dialogue-driven film, The River Why's audio is thoroughly unremarkable.

There aren't any dubs or downmixes on this Blu-ray disc, although The River Why does feature optional subtitles in English (SDH) and Spanish.

  • Interviews (39 min.; HD): The River Why features a slew of interviews, including conversations with producer
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    Kristi Denton Cohen, her husband and co-writer Thomas A. Cohen, director Matthew Leutwyler, and actors Amber Heard, Kathleen Quinlan, William Hurt, and Zach Gilford. It feels as if these interviews were shot with an EPK in mind that I guess was never cut together, so they're riddled with awkward pauses and are heavy on recapping the plot. The actors and actresses are charming enough but sound as if they're promoting the movie rather than discussing it. All four members of the cast chat about fishing, with a couple never having approached the sport quite like this before. The folks behind the camera on The River Why have somewhat more to say, such as their longstanding relationships with the original novel and how just long in the making this adaptation was. I can't say it's worth the forty minute investment, though.

  • Trailer (3 min.; HD): The only other extra is a high-def theatrical trailer. The same as the movie itself, this trailer is presented in 1080i rather than the usual 1080p24.

The Final Word
The River Why at times seems as if it's on the brink of delivering something worthwhile -- the gorgeous serenity of these rocky trout streams as well as strong turns by Kathleen Quinlan and Amber Heard -- but all in all, this is just a tedious, uninvolving, awkwardly philosophical, and surprisingly poorly acted coming-of-age story. Skip It.
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