Lullaby introduces Jonathan (Garrett Hedlund) smoking cigarettes in places he’s not supposed to (airplane bathroom, hospital lobby) and addressing anyone who asks him to stop by reading off of their nametag with maximum condescension. Thus begins the movie-long wait for any sign that Jonathan is more than a monstrously unpleasant human being, or at least that he’s hiding some deep reservoir of terrible pain.
On paper, it seems like he should be. The man’s returning home to New York City to see his wealthy father, Robert (Richard Jenkins), who was given an unpromising cancer diagnosis a dozen years earlier but has been able to hang on since with his wife Rachel (Anne Archer) at his side. But living with the disease has become a greater struggle, and he informs Rachel, Jonathan, and his sister Karen (Jessica Brown Findlay) that he wants to be taken off life support. Most of the movie takes place over the final 48 hours before Robert’s self-imposed deadline; it often feels as if it’s happening in real time.
This isn’t due to the difficulty of the subject matter, but rather the tendency of writer-director Andrew Levitas to stage phony confrontations based around vague notions of leaving, staying, or going. Nearly every dialogue scene volleys from melodramatic statement (“You hate it here! Just go!”) to pointless rejoinder. Despite a clear desire for confrontation, Lullaby hedges the issue of assisted suicide, which Karen opposes apparently even in cases that almost no one would consider actual assisted suicide. (Just about every subject and subplot is rendered irrelevant by how it’s mishandled.) Furthermore, the movie falls flat in its attempts to show how moments of absurdity break familial tension, as Levitas interrupts every bit of weary comic relief with more histrionics.
Endlessly spatting, Jonathan is a mercurial, artistic-minded young man rebelling against nothing in particular beyond the idea of his father dying. Hedlund exhibited similarly affected angst in On The Road and then seemed to parody it in Inside Llewyn Davis. All that’s left for him to do in Lullaby is maintain his facial hair, argue with everyone, and smoke on various New York City streets. The shots of NYC serve as exterior punctuation for a mostly interior, hospital-set movie; they also appear to summon Amy Adams, stuck in a weirdly underwritten role as one of Jonathan’s ex-lovers. (The movie fails to explain their age difference; by its own timeline, he couldn’t have been older than about 20 when they dated). She turns up to note that Jonathan is an “amazing guy” with a “brilliant mind and soul,” presumably because little he does or says in the movie is amazing, brilliant, or soulful. But Levitas does occasionally fix a camera rig to his chest to properly soak up his anguish.
Adams isn’t the only talented actress hired to prop up this character. Jonathan also receives the movie-land wisdom of an inspiring stranger who has it worse than he does—here the wonderful young English actress Jessica Barden (Tamara Drewe) as a teenage cancer patient who appears conveniently sans parents in all scenes. Rather than providing additional perspective, she just draws out the long, momentum-free trudge to Robert’s expiration. The film’s last moments with Jenkins (incapable of a phony moment, no matter how lame his dialogue) are affecting. But the sadness is free-floating, with little connection to the slog that preceded it. Lullaby is a small movie, but it slows down enough to accommodate plenty of self-indulgence.