Sunday, January 21, 2018

Take Me Home, Country Roads

Year: 2018
Director: Bethany Ashton Wolf
Cast: Alex Roe, Jessica Rothe, John Benjamin Hickey
Run Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Well, I had to watch some movie this weekend, and it sure as hell wasn't going to be the 140 minute cops and robbers drama starring Gerard Butler, and it sure as f**k wasn't going to be the 130 minute movie about soldiers riding horses after 9/11, so here we are.

If you show me your ticket stub, I'll show you mine.

In Forever My Girl, country music star Liam Page (Alex Roe, who completely failed to make an impression in last year's forgotten horror sequel Rings) is living the life of his dreams... only he's haunted by regret, having left his fiancée and his hometown of St. Augustine, Louisiana behind in order to pursue stardom. After a PG-rated meltdown where the most scandalous thing he does is run down a sidewalk barefoot, he decides to return home for the first time in eight years to attend the funeral of his best friend, who we saw in exactly two shots in the prologue and is one of the only two black people with speaking roles in this movie.

This brings him back in contact with that very same ex-fiancée, Josie (Jessica Rothe, who starred in Happy Death Day not but three months ago and on the horror relationship scale could do much better than Rings Guy) and her ferociously precocious daughter Billy (Abby Ryder Fortson), who as it happens was born a scant eight years ago, give or take about nine months. Spoiler alert: She's his daughter.

So, he must face facts and try to stop screwing up his life, in the unlikely (read: inevitable) event that these women - and this town - will accept such a broken, sockless man back into their lives.

But the issue remains: which girl is forever his?

People come to my blog because I'm not afraid to ask the hard questions.

So essentially this is a Nicholas Sparks movie drenched in a heaping helping of syrupy Southern drawl and small town values. Now, that's not in-and-of itself a bad thing (minus the fact that this movie mostly ignores black people in Louisiana of all places, but that's really Hollywood's fault and if we're looking for social justice brownie points, this film was actually directed by a woman which is awesome), and while Forever My Girl makes little attempt to rise above the trappings of a very well-worn genre, it's never a slog.

I mean, it sure does trip over its own plot developments like loose cobblestones, forcing the talented Rothe into an unforgiving role where she must make the decision to take her beau back because it's the point in the third act where that is supposed to happen and not because there's any human woman who would actually do what she does. And the script treats her flower business as just a Band-Aid for the wound of her man leaving, not an actual vital part of her life and income. Oh, and of course she owns a flower shop, did I not mention that before?

But hey, an archetype's an archetype, and it's not like there are any real human beings to be found here. Liam Page is a hopelessly broken alcoholic who gets over his abuse of substances just cuz he kinda decides to, and his character arc is mainly portrayed by how sweaty he is in any given scene. Then there's Billy, who is a hideously annoying genius child - the clear result of a 40-year-old attempting to write for an 8-year-old, like any role played by Chloë Grace Moretz back in the day.

An actual line repeated multiple times in this probing character study: "I don't know why I did it."

But hey, the acting is pretty OK. Roe has to suffer through an unfavorable comparison to Brando when he has a "screaming in the rain" scene that could only go poorly, but nobody else really hits a snag. Jessica Rothe does not find a suitable outlet for her talents here, but she's still pretty great, and the ensemble of the town is pretty generally warm and charismatic. Then there's the most stereotypical characters in the movie, Liam's L.A.-caricature manager and publicist. These characters could be a disaster in this type of movie, but the manager Sam (Peter Cambor) manages to humanize his role despite a shockingly out-of-character 180 he ,akes late in the movie.

And then there's Doris the publicist, who's actually by a country mile the best thing in the entire movie. She is played by the enormously undervalued Gillian Vigman (who plays the wife that Bradley Cooper leaves behind at home in all the Hangover movies), who turns three scenes into an indelible character, all prickly barbs and sociopathic charisma. She's the type of character who sees every person in the room as a dollar amount, and the scene where she's thrilled at the ways she'll be able to spin Liam Page's best friend's death is a damn triumph.

And of course there are no publicity stills of Doris, because the world is a cold and cruel place.

The best thing about the movie is that Doris is somehow not the only amusing person around. There's a vein of easygoing, gentle humor that wraps through the entire movie and keeps the energy moving even when the plot is stalling between on-the-nose country music needle drops. I chuckled more than a few times, which is more than I can say for any of the Nicholas Sparks movies that this is a clone of.

Plus, there's the fact that Forever My Girl is kinda sorta maybe even a musical, insofar as a great deal of the plot relies on Liam Page writing and performing country music, although this element takes a backseat during the second act. The film features a good half a dozen original country tunes co-developed by director Bethany Ashton Wolf with music team Brett Boyett and Jackson Odell, and although the rhymes are pretty forced, there's nothing worse here than in The Greatest Showman, a musical that I kind of adore. These songs are the only things that make the film substantially different from, say, A Walk to Remember, and I definitely appreciate the work that went into making them seem like something that could actually play on modern country radio.

In short, I had a pretty OK time with Forever My Girl. It won't blow the roof off your impressions of what a movie can be, but it's a reasonably inoffensive wisp of a romance that'll occupy you just enough to help the time pass if you're, I don't know, waiting on hold with a customer service support line or something.

TL;DR: Forever My Girl is a pretty bland conservative values romance, but it's got its heart in the right place.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1152

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