One of the inherent problems with the Twilight franchise is the notion that dead-eyed, perpetually glowering Kristen Stewart would inspire life-or-death competition between two of the world’s most beautiful, desirable man-creatures. In the relentlessly dour Sundance alum Welcome To The Rileys, James Gandolfini stars as a sad-sack who offers sullen 16-year-old stripper/runaway/prostitute Stewart $100 just for conversation, even though she’s so thoroughly off-putting that it’s a marvel anyone wants to talk to her in the first place, let alone pay handsomely for the privilege. Never has the old line about men paying prostitutes to leave, not to arrive, seemed more appropriate.
Gandolfini puts his smile into storage to play a successful small businessman who has been sleepwalking through a dreary existence ever since his daughter died in a car accident years before. During a business trip to New Orleans, Gandolfini strikes up an unlikely friendship with Stewart and decides, more or less on a whim, to move in with her until he can figure out what he wants to do with his life. Gandolfini’s unexpected wanderlust inspires his agoraphobic wife (Melissa Leo) to leave her home and head out on the open road for the first time in ages. Could this trio of wounded, hurting outcasts come together to form independent film’s one millionth or so unlikely but supportive surrogate family?
Ken Hixon’s script artlessly spells out the leads’ psychological motivations, leaving little doubt that Gandolfini is looking for a surrogate for a dead daughter whose presence he still feels keenly, while Stewart is looking for a father figure and a little stability. The bluntness wouldn’t be so oppressive if the film weren’t so austere and glacially paced: Welcome To The Rileys is way too humorless for a film in which Stewart repeatedly refers to her genitals as her “cooter.” Jake Scott’s perversely quiet melodrama traces a familiar arc from alienation to unlikely connection, yet the deeply internal Gandolfini and scowling Stewart remain trapped in their own hermetic universes. Their scenes together are less a passionate duet than the sad spectacle of two people humming softly, sadly, and tunelessly to themselves in unison.