It’s unfortunate that Lovely, Still has two amazing talents in Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, yet can’t manage to break past an overly simplistic, trite script and amateurish directing. On the surface, it appears to tell the very simple tale of a man finding love late in life. Landau’s Robert Malone lives a rather meager retirement working as a supermarket stocker and drawing pictures during his lunch breaks. Yet, he seems happy enough passing the days and finding a simple happiness in his routine.
But from the get-go, director Fackler doesn’t trust his story. He shoots everything in medium to close-up, a means of overly controlling the audience’s perspective that telegraphs his lack of confidence. This is particularly unnecessary when working with actors of the caliber of Landau and Burstyn, and top supporting talent like Adam Scott and Elizabeth Banks, who play Malone’s boss at the supermarket and Burstyn’s daughter, respectively. Fackler would have served his story so much more by allowing for longer shots that show Landau in his environment and achieve a more naturalistic feel. Not only that, but the script is underwritten and unsure of itself. The opening scenes developing Landau’s character quickly jump into a meeting with his boss where Adam Scott’s Mike attempts to sell Malone on a pyramid type-scheme for holiday cookbooks. Scott puts all of his considerable charms into the scene, but not even he can save the poor material, and the scene still comes off feeling like what it is: a script that’s unsure of itself treading water as the writer tries to figure out where to go with it all. Even once Burstyn enters the picture as the neighbor across the street who’s taking an interest in Malone and inserts herself into his life, the actors can’t surpass the script. Landau and Burstyn have so much likeability, so much craft, and so much talent at their disposal, but it’s all wasted on a script that’s unable to capture the honesty or nuances of love, or the wisdom and experiences these characters should have at their age. What’s left is mundane dialogue written by someone without any of the life experience or understanding of human nature to tell this story.
The rest of the film progresses similarly, with the acting talent trying to elevate material not worthy of them, but doing so with an effortlessness that occasionally works during some of the script’s stronger moments. It doesn’t help that the poor production values are yet another amateurish element dragging the overall quality down. The whole thing comes off feeling like mediocre community theatre, and frankly, you feel a little uncomfortable and embarrassed for all of the acting talent involved. To make matters worse, there’s a sort of twist ending that seems to exist mainly for Fackler to be able to point at how clever he is and use this film as a calling card in a world of M. Night Shyamalans and Christopher Nolans. But in light of the twist, much of what has come before falls apart. It’s not the kind of movie like The Sixth Sense where you can go back and earlier scenes are illuminated; with this new information, previous dialogue becomes non-sensical and untrue, and entire scenes are rendered pointless and false.
One could certainly attempt to make the argument that the story structure and the narrative twist are an attempt to be true to one of the film’s characters. Perhaps in a better film with a different script this argument would be valid. But for this material and this film, it simply feels like a self-aggrandizing flourish overlaid on something that was floundering to begin with, like a gymnast attempting a complicated finish after a by-the-books routine that she was barely able to struggle through. There’s a reason this film sat on a shelf for two years and then only received the extremely limited distribution it’s gotten. And it’s not that the world doesn’t want to see smaller films, or that Landau or Burstyn aren’t box office draws. It’s simply the result of a weak effort poorly executed, despite the involvement of some major acting talent.