Elizabeth Chomko’s new dementia movie is seriocomic and affectionately drawn, even though it more often than not it gets into a rut through the difficulties and diversions which form from its treatment.
What They Had stars Hilary Swank, Taissa Farmiga, Blythe Danner, Robert Forster, and Michael Shannon, and discerning folks watching it may be reminded of films like Iris, Still Alice, and Sarah Polley’s thoughtful, uneasy, and heartbreaking Away From Her about the onset as well as, onslaught, of a serious disease.
Chomko is a playwright and actor stepping out as a first-time director (and also writes) drawing from her own life, specifically her grandparents. Characters are brought together, the premise put forth, and going through a typical narrative schematic rotating around itself where once what is on the line is established how it all unfolds appears to just be a formality. Bickering finally leads to misfortune which finally elicits an undertaking from a clan.
With recollections, including home movies, one gets to witness a better milieu for Burt (Forster) and Ruth (Danner, mother of Gwyneth Paltrow). The ailing latter drifts into Windy City wintry environs with just a nightgown before turning up all right. Swank’s California chef, Bridget, returns home to the Midwest with unhappy college-age daughter Emma (Farmiga, younger sister, not daughter, of Vera). Bridget’s dad, Burt, and unmarried barman brother Nick (Shannon) are at odds when it comes to her care. A majority of the story is set in and around the older couple’s condominium, though Danner, holding her own in what the scribe allows her to do, is oddly saddled by Ruth’s situation.
That allows Swank and Shannon to get into volatile situations with comparable gesticulations and enunciations; even as the narrative may hit roadblocks (including a strand with Bridget and Nick) these characters are quite persuasive with Shannon piercing in many sequences and two-time Oscar winner Swank (“Million Dollar Baby”, and very good in the recent small-screen miniseries “Trust” opposite Brendan Fraser and Donald Sutherland) evincing a telling sympathetic presence. And, Forster’s staunch husband in refusing to acknowledge Ruth’s decline causing appreciable hurdles is handled with deft distinction.
Yet, if What They Had doesn’t equal Tamara Jenkins’ distinguished look on the same subject with a sister (Laura Linney) and brother (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) trying to cope with their father, “The Savages,” an investment of fine demonstrative deliberations connects on a topic that so many have to confront with plenty of earthy levity to spare. In this case, it may have instilled more poignancy and urgency if Chomko was able to distill more of her expertise onto celluloid.