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With: Ed Harris, Zooey Deschanel, Will Ferrell, Amelia Warner, Amy Madigan, Rachel Dratch, Dallas Roberts, Sam Bottoms
Written by: Adam Rapp
Directed by: Adam Rapp
MPAA Rating: R for language, some drug use and sexuality
Running Time: 98
Date: 09/10/2005

Winter Passing (2006)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Passing' Failure

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In a recent issue of MovieMaker Magazine, filmmaker Wim Wenders outlined his 50 Golden Rules of Filmmaking. Number 2 reads: "If you have nothing to say, don't feel obliged to pretend you do."

That goes a long way in explaining the new film Winter Passing, which marks the big screen debut of writer/director Adam Rapp.

Winter Passing has several unusual scenes that unfold in a lovely, interesting way, and several more that play exactly as you might expect them to.

Yet the overall impression is one of: "so what"? It's as if Rapp decided to make a movie -- any movie -- and it didn't really matter what kind. Now he's met some movie stars, has probably been to a few great parties and perhaps has a great new business card that reads "screenwriter/director." But that doesn't mean he has anything to say.

The first indication of this problem comes in the film's overall story arc. A young actress, Reese Holden (Zooey Deschanel) living in New York City is approached by a reporter. We learn that both Reese's mother and father were famous authors, that her mother is dead and that she once penned a collection of love letters that the reporter would like to publish.

Despite telling the reporter to kindly buzz off, Reese reluctantly returns home to see her reclusive writer father, Don Holden (Ed Harris) -- not surprisingly, named like one of Salinger's major characters.

In the past couple of years we've had several tales of young people reluctantly returning home (Garden State, Elizabethtown) and several tales of reclusive, Salinger-like writers (Finding Forrester, Wonder Boys, The Squid and the Whale) who have published one book and struggle against the second. What makes Winter Passing different from those films and worth telling on its own terms? Not much.

Still, Winter Passing sometimes captures a nice, lazy wintertime feel, in which the cold slows everything down. It juxtaposes warm rooms with the brisk outdoor air, and this changing atmosphere rubs off on the characters.

Will Ferrell especially, playing Don's helper Corbit, instinctively taps into the film's tone and mutates it to his own ends. Ferrell has done a remarkable job over the past several years of finding the correct roles and/or adapting them to his unique personality -- the overgrown child seeking immediate pleasure -- and Winter Passing is the closest he's come to a genuine performance.

While Don writes (or rather, drinks) in his messy garage office, Corbit occupies the house. He's a kind of handyman who wears eye shadow and practices guitar with a kind of faux seriousness that borders on scholarly, but also cries out for attention.

Deschanel matches Ferrell perfectly (re-capturing their wonderful Elf chemistry) and this pair provides a kind of core to the film. With her relaxed, wise voice and confident eyes, she's a naturally warm presence able to pierce Ferrell's armor.

Corbit shares the house with a second helper, Shelley (Amelia Warner), a former student of Don's who probably had an affair with him. Together, Corbit and Shelley cater to Don's whims, cook his meals and hope that he'll eventually write again.

Unlike her co-stars, poor Shelley has nothing to do but follow Reese around, asking if she needs anything. Likewise, Harris is forced to stoop and slur, peering sleepily through a thin curtain of white hair (wearing the kind of wig that, like Billy Bob Thornton's in Levity, is so delicately phony the actor is afraid to touch it).

While Rapp does an admirable job of withholding his characters' motivations -- most films explain too much and too early -- the effect here is that the characters seem to have no motivation at all.

Thus, the more the film goes on, the lovely little moments, like Corbet singing at an open mike night, resonate less. Certain characters make decisions that feel arbitrary and other characters make no decisions, which feels just as arbitrary.

The fact is that we've spent time with these four people. Some of those moments during our trip make for nice little, quasi-memorable snapshots, but ultimately we have no idea why we've visited these particular people at this particular time or what, if anything, we've come away with.

It comes down to Wenders's original idea about having something to say. Rapp doesn't appear to have anything to say, but instead of accepting that, he's tried to cover it up with a film that feels like it ought to be thoughtful and intriguing. If Winter Passing had actually been brave enough to focus on people with nothing to say, ironically, it would have been far more interesting.

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