Brett Haley is steadily carving out a reputation as the go-to guy for depicting men and women of a certain age negotiating various forms of midlife crises. For Blythe Danner in “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” it was a widow’s second chance at love. In last year’s “The Hero,” it was a dying Sam Elliott longing to reconnect with his estranged daughter. Haley’s latest, the Sundance darling “Hearts Beat Loud,” is a sort of a blend of the previous two with Nick Offerman inhabiting the clichéd role of a 48-year-old widower trying to squeeze every last drop from his final days with his college-bound daughter before she departs Brooklyn for a pre-med curriculum at UCLA.
It’s undeniably sweet, and like all of Haley’s films, brimming with compassion for the characters he’s cooked up with regular writing partner Marc Basch. But as with “The Hero,” everything feels overly calculated and under developed. Genuineness is never a concern; just cheese and manipulation. It doesn’t take long to tire of it, either. You keep waiting for a spark, but all you get is predictability and disappointment. You also get a filmmaker determined to be the red, white and blue version of Ireland’s John Carney, the originator of gems like “Once” and “Sing Street,” pictures where music spoke as loudly — if not louder — than words.
With Carney, the sound is rich and full-bodied; with Haley it’s tinny and blah. Nor is it anywhere near as organic. If anything, the music here plays like a gimmick, a novelty song that while catchy is weighted down by lyrics best described as clunky. But music is secondary to Haley’s insistence that a father and daughter who write songs together, stay together. Well, at least they do after clearing a set of hurdles that could only be dreamed up by screenwriters. Haley and Basch fuss and fuss over creating phony conflicts designed to keep father and daughter apart until it’s time for them to finally find harmony.
Haley and Basch also seem to be on some sort of diversity kick, by rendering Offerman’s over-the-hill hipster, Frank Fisher, and his musically gifted daughter, Sam (“Dope’s” Kiersey Clemons), as representative of the sociological rainbow. He’s a white single dad, she’s his black, only-child daughter; she’s also bi-sexual with a ready-made girlfriend in “American Honey” breakout star Sasha Lane. All that’s missing is Caitlyn Jenner as a potential love interest for Frank. Instead, that thinnest of roles falls to “Hereditary” marvel Toni Collette, making the most out of a drab, plasticized character.
For added convolution, Collette’s Leslie is also the woman Frank is leasing his failing vintage record store from in the trendy Red Hook section of Brooklyn. It’s only a matter of time before they start talking partnership — in the shop, that is. Romantically, things aren’t quite as neat, as we learn the night they saddle up at a neighborhood bar run by none other than Sam Malone. “Cheers”! Yes, Haley goes there, casting Ted Danson as a mixologist unimaginatively named Dave. You half expect Norm and Cliff to suddenly come waltzing in. There’s also karaoke involved. Isn’t there always? And that attractive senile older woman claiming to be Frank’s mother really is Blythe Danner slumming in a useless, borderline offensive part.
The main problem with “Hearts Beat Loud,” besides the gratuitous use of product placement, is the fact the movie has zero reason to exist. What are we to glean from a story about a father who likes writing and playing songs with his daughter? Sure, she resists at first, stupidly insisting on placing her bets on a sure-thing medical degree instead of chasing a long-shot life as a rock star. But you know she’ll come around, especially after she goes gaga for Lane’s Rose. Or, might the entire enterprise be a thickly veiled PSA on how dangerous it is to ride a bike in New York City? That memorial bicycle dedicated to Sam’s long-dead mom sure makes an impact. Sorry, bad choice of words.
No matter, the movie’s script makes even worse choices, but Haley is lucky enough to have actors the caliber of Offerman, Collette and Danson to make this depressing — but saccharine-sweet — story go down with a minimum of suffering. It’s probably not even as terrible as I made it sound, but given the level of talent involved, “Hearts Beat Loud” should be so much more than a free ad for Spotify. It should be rich in resonance, not another flat note at the end of a minor scale
“Hearts Beat Loud”
Cast includes Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Toni Collette, Blythe Danner and Ted Danson.
(PG-13 for some drug references and brief language.)