We’ve seen him dozens of times before, saying any damn thing that comes into his head (because living on the planet for 70 or 80 years has given him the right to do so). He’s on his own incorrigible wavelength, dropping putdowns as fresh as his body is old, spicing every cranky comment with a perfectly chosen F–bomb. But, of course, he’s also part of the family. He’s the grumpy old man, the naughty codger from hell — the hilarious over-the-hill a–hole who is always played by someone like, you know, Alan Arkin. Just about every time we see him, he’s a showbiz creation, a character baptized in shtick.
But in “Boundaries,” a touching yet wised-up father-daughter road movie that’s the best version of this sort of film you could imagine (it’s standard, but very tastefully done), Christopher Plummer plays him with a lived-in, soft-shoe command. At 88, Plummer looks about as handsome as a man his age can be, with cheekbones that take the light beautifully, his white hair swept back and set off by a beard that’s still, from certain angles, sort of sexy. He plays Jack Jaconi, the pathologically charming and selfish father of Laura (Vera Farmiga), and by the end of the opening scene, when she’s sounding off to her therapist about him, we’re certain that he must be some version of the monster she describes. Laura won’t even take his calls — that’s how much damage he’s caused.
Then Jack shows up, and he’s such a smiley and debonair old coot that he doesn’t only seem not so bad; he seems real. True, the tropes are all in place. Jack, who has just gotten kicked out of his senior-citizen facility, has $200,000 worth of marijuana he’s trying to unload. (Yes, he’s a drug dealer.) He also speaks his mind with such a sly-boots sense of humor that it takes us a moment or two to notice how merciless he is. When his teenage grandson, Henry (Lewis McDougall), makes a mild off-color remark about not wanting to go into a shed for fear of being molested, Jack says, “You wouldn’t get molested with a bow in your hair.” Ouch! (On several levels.)
Yet with no insult to Alan Arkin, or to the cast of either version of “Going in Style,” Plummer takes the character of Jack and divests him of any hint of the usual calculated comic overstatement. Every line feels spontaneous, served up with Plummer’s dryly amused finesse, in tones that are quiet yet sonorous enough to rival Morgan Freeman’s. Laura, an animal-rescue freak, has a collection of canine strays who are wispy and broken-down enough to look like actual rescue dogs. “You’re the Pied Piper of mange,” says Jack, and it’s a good line, but what he means is: You’re working way too hard to rescue yourself.
The writer-director, Shana Feste, who made the 2010 Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle “Country Strong,” knows how to stage a road movie as soft-edged psychodrama, without getting bogged down in dumb plot developments. And she’s got just the right actress in Vera Farmiga, who plays Laura with a protective anger — a sense of propping up her own boundaries — that can’t mask how vulnerable she still is to her dad’s bad parenting. Is Laura right that he wasn’t there for her? Of course! But the movie is still tough enough to say: That’s no excuse for playing life’s victim.
Driving from Portland to Los Angeles, where Laura plans to deposit Jack in the home of her sister, the goofy Deadhead and dog-walker JoJo (Kriste Schaal), they stop off at the homes of several key people: Jack’s two old buddies, played by a warmly flaky Christopher Lloyd and a coolly flaky Peter Fonda, as well as Laura’s ex-husband, a flyweight scoundrel (Bobby Cannavale) whom she married because he was her dad all over again. Along the way, Henry, the “weird” (i.e., smart and humane) grandson, a young artist who draws imagined nudes of people that nail their inner essence, forms the inevitable secret alliance with Jack. He helps him sell (and conceal) his weed, but more than that he finds the father figure he needs in this grandfather who answers to absolutely no one. The beauty of Plummer’s performance is that he makes Jack a crusty life force.
“Boundaries” is very fluidly shot, with a pleasing commercial sheen, and if handled correctly it could prove to be a mid-summer counter-programming awards-bait indie charmer. Farmiga hasn’t had a part this good since “Up in the Air,” and Plummer is on a roll. The 15-year-old Scottish actor Lewis McDougall, with his surly delinquent smirk, makes himself someone to watch. “Boundaries,” to be sure, delivers you to a place you know you’re going, but there should always be room for a movie that does that this well.
The Hollywood Reporter Review
Christopher Plummer plays Vera Farmiga’s n’er-do-well dad in the road movie by Shana Feste.
A family-therapy road trip in which the key to getting along appears to be forgetting everything you’ve learned about life, Shana Feste’s Boundaries casts Vera Farmiga as a woman who just can’t abandon the old man (Christopher Plummer) who abandoned her time and time again through her life. However well-worn the format, the intense distress of Farmiga’s performance suits the director’s personal investment in the tale’s specifics. But a fantastic cast doing fine work can’t make this feel-good hokum believable, and most viewers who walk away satisfied are those who’d happily watch any new Plummer vehicle, just to celebrate the actor’s enduring vitality and charm.
We meet Farmiga’s Laura in her therapist’s office, where her two big issues are set out clearly. Though her father makes constant efforts to get in touch, he is incapable of meeting her emotional needs, and every interaction turns to heartbreak. And, as a neglected child, she now is addicted to rescuing animals. There’s a kitten hiding in her purse right now, the therapist notes — despite the promises Laura has made to adopt only one a month — and her house is a menagerie whose photogenic assortment of cute misfit dogs and cats seems calculated to keep us from gagging at the thought of what it all smells like.
Laura’s son Henry (Lewis MacDougall), whose own father Leonard (Bobby Cannavale) left years ago, is fine with all the animals and their individual medical needs. But he’s less good with humans, and has just been expelled from school, partly thanks to his habit of drawing underground-comix-style portraits of teachers with no clothes on. He’s going to have to switch to an expensive private school that can address his needs, and Laura doesn’t have the money. After hitting up the ultrarich old friend who’s also her boss and being rebuffed (the woman and her daughter are Mylar-thin caricatures of moneyed self-centeredness), she decides Dad’s the only option.
Conveniently, old Jack has just been evicted from his rest home for having a hidden cannabis nursery, so he needs a favor in return. I’ll give you the money if you let me move in with you, he tells Laura. She counters his offer: Though Laura’s big Seattle house has plenty of room, she arranges for Jack to move into his other daughter JoJo’s (Kristen Schaal) Los Angeles studio apartment, where he’ll have to share a futon with her. The only way to make sense of this is to understand that the movie needs Laura, Henry and Jack to be stuck in a car together for the long ride down the Pacific coast.
The resulting picaresque finds roguish Jack insisting on a string of pit stops along the highway, both to visit disreputable old buddies (like an art forger played by Christopher Lloyd) and to “change my diaper” at seaside rest areas. Laura doesn’t realize that these stops are drug deals: Jack has filled his bags with weed, and arranged to meet buyers at all these spots.
Again, the requirements of genre trump narrative logic: Despite Henry’s fierce protectiveness of his mother, Feste needs him to bond with the grandpa who has hurt her throughout his life. So she has Jack make Henry his dope-slinging confederate, even though this is a one-man job. Henry enjoys the illicit responsibility, and hides things from Laura with unlikely ease.
The arrangement falls apart when Jack insists on an overnight stay in Sausalito with Leonard. Ostensibly another drug deal, this is mostly a chance to show how bad Laura continues to be at looking out for herself. At this point, some in the audience will be ready to give up on her. Farmiga makes Laura’s failures to see what’s coming credible, maintaining a baseline of annoyed distraction that might believably prevent her from stopping to ask herself, “Wait — is it really a good idea to share a bottle of whiskey alone with my hunky ex-husband?”
It’s not as if those around Laura are seducing her into doing the things that cause her trouble, and it certainly isn’t as if (with the exception of that night with Leonard) she enjoys them. Plummer exudes charisma as always, but Jack is not a charmer: He merely tells Laura what to do, and dismisses her objections as neurosis. “You can’t live without being a victim, can you?,” he asks at one point. But the accuracy of his diagnosis does little to resolve our own dissatisfaction with a character we want to root for but shouldn’t. Laura may keep expecting change from an 85-year-old who has never acted with her interests in mind, and Feste may go along with the willful blindness. That doesn’t mean we have to buy it.