There’s nothing like a love triangle in which one of the three people involved is both famous and dead. “I’m competing with a saint,” complains Tumbledown’s Andrew (Jason Sudeikis) to Hannah (Rebecca Hall), the woman he loves, but it would be more accurate to say that he’s competing with a ghost, albeit one whose haunting is wholly psychological. What’s more, it’s the ghost of a man who died young, at the height of his popularity. Damien Jurado provides the music of Hannah’s late husband, Hunter Miles, a Bon Iver-ish acoustic folkie who released one “perfect” album, recorded solo in the Maine woods, before accidentally falling to his death while hiking. Andrew, an academic specializing in pop culture, wants to write a book about Hunter, and winds up agreeing to collaborate with Hannah on a biography. The two gradually fall for each other while he stays in Hannah’s cabin, gathering information, but Hannah still isn’t quite ready to let go of the icon whose beloved songs were primarily about her.
That’s enough of an impediment to fuel a romantic comedy with a lightly serious undertone, so it’s a shame that screenwriter Desi Van Til and director Sean Mewshaw—Tumbledown is the first feature for both—feel compelled to throw a bunch of additional obstacles in the path of their characters’ happiness. In standard genre tradition, both parties are burdened with an established, jealous partner. Hannah indulges in regular but strictly physical flings with a local power-company employee (Joe Manganiello), who does things like show up at her house with a bird in his hand and ask whether it’s worth just one in the bush. (Later, he arrives carrying a possum, though whatever double entendre that’s supposed to enable isn’t heard.) Andrew, for his part, has an actual girlfriend (played by Glee’s Dianna Agron), and he’s much more surprised than any savvy viewer will be when she unexpectedly flies to Maine unannounced for a visit. Even when these caricatures are shoved aside, Andrew’s theory that Hunter’s death may have been a suicide creates an artificial rift that exists just long enough to facilitate a change of heart and hot pursuit.
That Tumbledown sort of works in spite of all its clichés is a testament to the gifts of its two lead actors. Hall, who just wowed Sundance audiences with a live-wire performance in Antonio Campos’ Christine, here invests a much more conventional role with the same raw conviction; when Andrew asks Hannah if he can kiss her, and she tells him no, it’s almost possible to believe that she’s not going to kiss him herself seconds later. (She is.) And while Sudeikis still has a certain self-conscious slickness in romantic mode, that’s appropriate for Andrew, whose initial motive for getting close to Hannah is entirely mercenary. As a rom-com, Tumbledown is more mildly amusing than funny, but the dramatic moments frequently sing, even if they’re subsequently undercut by crowd-pleasing elements. If nothing else, the movie provides the best possible answer to the oft-heard question, “What do you want me to say?” “I don’t know what I want you to say,” Andrew tells Hannah, with affecting sincerity. “I just like it when you say things.” File that away.