Turgid, tear-jerking claptrap rarely gets as delicious as Fathers And Daughters, the latest from emotional smut peddler Gabriele Muccino (The Pursuit Of Happyness, Seven Pounds). Objectively speaking, it’s garbage, a suffocating mix of dad redemption, not-ready-for-Mr.-Right romance, and a bogus lit-world success story, with mental illness, slobs-vs.-snobs legal drama, and an Electra complex thrown in for flavor. On that level, it’s as shameless as porn; there’s a reason why both guilty-pleasure weepies and jerk-off videos are graded on how they produce uncontrollable flows of bodily fluid. But while most overstuffed melodramas are just plodding movies energized by a readiness to risk ridicule, Fathers And Daughters attacks the base urge for sentimental gratification as though it were on a suicide mission. Racing like a Nicholas Sparks flick on a fistful of uppers, it is relentless enough to sometimes override the viewer’s bullshit meter and can’t seem to let its characters open a car door or sit down without ramming a camera down 12 feet of dolly track to land within inches of their faces.
Like a daddy-daughter danse macabre, the story alternates between the late ’80s, where recently widowed novelist Jake Davis (Russell Crowe) tries to raise a daughter alone while dealing with severe full-body tremors, and the present day, where the now grown-up Kate (Amanda Seyfried) is a social worker who deals with her own unresolved childhood traumas by screwing any man that says hi. Eventually, Jake will write a book of Mitch Albom-esque swill (also called Fathers And Daughters) that will win him a second Pulitzer Prize, putting this grumbling collection of typewriter-tapping clichés in the same category as William Faulkner and John Updike. For now (or “then,” technically), he has to fight for custody of his daughter—or “daughtah,” as Jake says whenever Crowe decides that his character has a New Yawk accent—against the rich in-laws (Bruce Greenwood, Diane Kruger) who took her in while he was in a mental hospital.
Not to be outdone, present-day Kate is busy trying to connect with a little girl (Quvenzhané Wallis) who refuses to speak, all the while being courted by aspiring writer Cameron (Aaron Paul), who considers Fathers And Daughters his personal bible and is not at all a creepy replacement for her dad. (Jake’s absence from this timeline and Kate’s identification with orphaned children should lead viewers to draw their own conclusions, even if the movie presumes that they won’t.) A marvel of robotic expository dialogue, questionable motivating psychology, and general phoniness, Brad Desch’s script fits right into Muccino’s wheelhouse (paternal wish fulfillment, redemptive sacrifice, a shade of misogyny, etc.) while keeping a breakneck pace. As incessant and trashy as the movie might be in its full-frontal mawkishness, one is almost—almost—won over by how much energy is expended by all involved, from the way Crowe completely throws himself into Jake’s anxiety-triggered convulsions to cinematographer Shane Hurlbut’s toothsome camerawork, as overqualified as the cast.
A child’s apple splits across a dashboard in slow motion during a car crash, and fluttering lace curtains throw shadows that resemble a swarm of flies over a sick man’s face; there are complicated long takes aplenty, including a fiendish Children Of Men-aping sequence that follows Cameron and Kate down a sidewalk and in and out of a moving taxi during an argument that might as well have been written by algorithm. No one is going to accuse Muccino of being Douglas Sirk, but when Kate drunkenly yells “I miss you!” at a bar jukebox while a wedding-band arrangement of “(They Long To Be) Close To You” sung by Michael Bolton plays on, Fathers And Daughters’ eagerness to out-ridicule any and all comers nearly crosses over into a cosmic high. Perhaps it’s worth it for that extreme of cheesy sentimentality; if it hit the note any harder, it would have to be sold in a black wrapper.