Sometimes a single scene sets such a strong tone that the rest of the film has a hard time breaking it. For Winter Passing, that scene comes early. No, it isn't the one of star Zooey Deschanel cracking her first, fleeting smile after snorting coke in a bathroom bar while considering a literary agent's offer to buy the correspondence of her famous writer parents. And it isn't the one of Deschanel joylessly enduring another round of druggy sex with her scuzzy boyfriend. It isn't even the scene in which Deschanel slams her hand in a kitchen drawer just to feel something, then collapses in a sobbing heap. It's shortly after those, when, having received a message that her kitten has tested positive for feline leukemia, she tearfully stuffs him in a gym bag and drops him in a river.
And... cue Will Ferrell and laughs! To be fair, Ferrell keeps it low-key, playing the man-child caretaker to Deschanel's reclusive dad (Ed Harris). Though his character isn't far removed from his comedic creations, Ferrell offers a nice dramatic turn. In fact, Winter Passing is full of nice dramatic turns, including one from relative-unknown Amelia Warner as Harris' former student-turned-nanny (and possible lover). What Winter Passing lacks, however, is a reason to exist other than as a dramatic exercise. Deschanel's trip to her childhood home in Michigan's Upper Peninsula allows for plenty of soul-searching, but writer-director Adam Rapp should have remembered that soul-searching alone makes for a pretty dull film, particularly when it's as familiar as this. Harris wrestles with a whiskey bottle and a manuscript as Deschanel slowly emerges from a depressive fugue, and everything happens to rhythms set by similar films before it. Still, even beneath a mop of hair and behind a sullen expression, Deschanel is such an effortlessly likeable presence that it's still heartening to watch her leave Winter Passing a happier person than she entered it. With any luck, no one will spoil the mood by telling her that, though feline leukemia remains a serious disease, there are now a number of treatment options that don't involve drowning.