About thirty minutes into Nostalgia, a handful of neighbors–each affected by a recent fire–reflect on all of the things they’ve lost. A strangely complacent insurance agent (John Ortiz) sits with them. When asked how he can hear their woes and not appear affected, he explains his everyday encounters with people just like them, who’ve lost everything and are forced to go on and live life. It’s the most interesting moment in the film’s most interesting scene. From here, we follow Ellen Burstyn, playing one of the neighbors, who travels to Las Vegas to sell a Ted Williams-signed baseball that was a prized possession of her late husband’s. There she meets a memorabilia shop-owner (a lovely Jon Hamm), who we then follow. Such is the intersecting structure of the picture, with the second half unfortunately giving way to some tragic melodrama that undermines what’s come before.
Directed by Mark Pellington from a screenplay by Alex Ross Perry, this movie is determined to explore the stuff that sits around our lives; the objects that wrap themselves in memories and meaning. When the focus is on the characters’ relationship to these things, there emerges a creative angle not often explored in cinema. Bruce Dern puts in reliable work at the start as an old man sorting out everything in his home while dealing with familial scars, convinced there’s nobody left who cares about him. Catherine Keener shows up later on and is asked to do quite a bit. Ultimately, Hamm and Burstyn are the stand-outs here, their scene together an effective bridge between narrative threads.
Pellington has had a fascinating career. He made a name for himself in the early 90s, his music video for Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” emblematic of the aesthetic of the time. What came next was Going All The Way, a Sundance selection boasting an impressive young cast (Ben Affleck, Jeremy Davies, Rachel Weisz, Rose McGowan), and the underrated studio picture Arlington Road. From there, a modest Richard Gere thriller (The Mothman Prophecies) was followed by a quadrant of indies (Henry Poole Is Here, I Melt With You, The Last Word, and this) all exploring loss, memory and regret in vastly different ways.
With that in mind, Nostalgia feels like Pellington’s most personal piece of work. The director shares a story credit with Perry, after all. One wishes Ortiz’s agent had taken a more central role throughout. The character actor does such impressive work with his limited time on screen and provides important context for everything around him. Once we lose him, the film begins to slip away. That said, there is a deliberate pace and lingering beauty in every frame that compliments the longing tone Pellington is going for. Ultimately, the whole is not as great as the sum of some very effective scenes.
Nostalgia opens on Friday, February 16.