OUR SOULS AT NIGHT (Movie Review)

Our Souls At Night
*** out of ****
Rated TV-14
(for brief language, adult themes, and mild sexuality)
Released:  September 29, 2017
Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: Ritesh Batra
Starring: Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Judy Greer, Bruce Dern

Streaming exclusively on Netflix

Rarely, if ever, does a movie succeed in spite of its director, but this one does (barely) thanks to a pair of legendary leads.

Simply made, with clunky side-stories and choppy transitions, Our Souls At Night ends up blossoming – and occasionally flourishes – because Jane Fonda and Robert Redford are, well, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford.

Fifty years after their first on-screen pairing in Barefoot in the Park, these immortally gorgeous Hollywood idols still exude chemistry, but now more casually (that’s a plus, not a minus). Everything and everyone else around them is just a distraction.

They play Addie and Louis, two locals of a rural Colorado town whose spouses passed away years ago. Though merely acquaintances, Addie extends to Louis a unique proposition: they should sleep together. Not make love. Not even cuddle. Just sleep together.

Considering the film’s exclusive streaming distributor, Addie’s provocatively unprovocative overture, which Louis accepts, allows Our Souls at Night to put a sweet (and relatively chaste) spin on Netflix-and-Chill.

Abruptly, the story rushes into the premise of Addie’s decent proposal. The iconic stars, however, more than make up for what’s lacking in proper setup and character development. Their enduring personas (and our affection for them) easily fill in the blanks.

There’s also nice touches of how retro they still are; reading newspapers rather than websites, Louis’s landline phone (with cord!) rather than cell, and information written in notebooks rather than on smart devices.

The initial phase of getting to know each other is awkward but adorably so, not cutesy or pandering. As they begin to share about their lives, their pasts, and their regrets, scenes resonate with tender, unforced sentiment.

Eventually, the relationship goes from indoors and private to around town and public, making for a harmless winking scandal that the locals can enjoy (and for Louis’s diner friends, led by Bruce Dern, to playfully rib him about).

Family subplots, however, make the main plot plod. The introduction of Addie’s grandson is played as a bonding catalyst, but it feels boilerplate and unnecessary. We’d much rather get back to more intimate scenes of personal candor between Fonda and Redford.

In addition, Addie’s grumpy nearly-divorced son Gene is a major drag on what should be a pleasant slice of cinema. Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts is appropriately brooding yet he’s horribly miscast, his bitter Euro edge and barely-good American accent making for an odd fit.

Based on the novel by Kent Haruf, from his series of books set in the fictional town of Holt, CO, the screenplay hues closely to its source (apparently), which was generally well-received.

Adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the duo behind other clever, layered romances like 500 Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now, it’s hard to blame the script for the movie’s missteps, and there’s certainly no fault in their stars (oh yeah, Neustadter and Weber adapted that, too).

The stark tonal deficiencies, then, land at the feet of director Ritesh Batra. The whole thing is cobbled together in bland, workmanlike fashion, documenting the script but little else. The assembly is particularly rough as some scenes end abruptly, cutting away mid-conversation or, inexplicably, from expressions of emotional vulnerability.

Like the leads, seasoned cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt makes up for a lot (especially with lush landscapes of Colorado forests and mountains), but Batra’s uninspired vision chops up what should be delectable movie night comfort food. Thankfully, Fonda and Redford keep this anchored and leisurely agreeable, while imbuing it with meaning (Fonda especially).

Our Souls at Night is effective in fits and starts, never settling into a consistent groove, but when it works – i.e. when Fonda and Redford are left alone to their own charismatic devices – it’s a delicately rendered two-hander about the need for companionship, especially during those lonely late night hours, for as long as there’s life still to be lived.

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