We begin with an average night in the life of Doug and Lois Riley (James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo). She stays at home and does nothing much with her time. He is much more active: He has a poker game, smokes a cigarette, goes for some food at the local diner, smokes a cigarette, has an affair with the waitress who serves his waffles, and then has another cigarette before he comes home for the night. His wife waits up for him.
You see, these two people have become disenchanted with the thought of living after their daughter died. They’ve drifted apart, and they’re generally unhappy people. Doug heads to New Orleans for a business trip, and Lois can’t even leave the house. In New Orleans, he ends up heading to a strip club and meets a stripper/prostitute named Mallory (Kristen Stewart). Or maybe it’s Allison. Brenda? She goes by many names. She also claims she’s 22, although Doug thinks she looks 15. He ends up going back to her house, but refuses her multiple advances.
The next morning, he has Lois on the phone. He’s decided he has to stay in New Orleans for an indefinite period of time. Why? He’s going to become a surrogate father for Mallory (which is the name I’ll go with for the sake of convenience). Of course, he doesn’t tell his wife that, so he’s essentially leaving her in the dark — “her” being someone who’s afraid to even leave the house because she’s overcome with grief. Mallory isn’t aware of his intentions either, but after fixing the electricity, plunging the toilet and doing her laundry, she warms to the idea. As long as he pays her $100 per day to stay at her house, that is. Where he gets the money to do this for months, I’ll never know, but he seemed to have an unlimited cash flow.
Most of the film deals with the relationship between Mallory and Doug, she so unsure of what the world can offer and he so kind, generous, and all other types of words one uses to describe a person with a huge heart. We also occasionally cut away to Lois, who continues to fight with the isolation that comes not only from losing her daughter but now also from seemingly losing her husband — and she doesn’t know the reason for the latter of the two.
The problem with the film is that it doesn’t really go anywhere, and when it does, it follows the precise pattern one can expect from this type of film. All tension feels manufactured, especially because the characters get along for the vast majority of their time together. If they’re to have a fight, it’ll result in an overreaction and eventual consolation which doesn’t change anything about anyone.
Really, the only reason this film works at all is because of the strong performances. The two lead grownups are highlights, with Gandolfini standing out because of his larger role, and because he comes across so warmly, but Leo makes do with her smaller, more understated role. Kristen Stewart doesn’t do a bad job either, although her character basically has two modes: Gloomy and angry. And I suppose a combination of the two as well, but she’s strong enough here at conveying these two complimentary emotions.
If it weren’t for the performances, this isn’t a film that would work all that well. The pacing is too slow, the plot often doesn’t go anywhere, it’s a predictable film, and it’s also quite silly when you step back and think about it. I mean, come on! Some dude has decided to become a fake-father to a teenage stripper, spending over $100 a day for the privilege? We’re supposed to believe that would happen? Get past that, and there are a few other problems the film has, but I found that basic premise hard enough to believe in.
It also seemed as if the death of their daughter fully encompassed the two adults’ personalities. I can be sympathetic toward someone who underwent such a traumatic event, but if that’s as deep as their character gets, and they base everything they do based on something like that, it’s hard to continually think “oh, it’s okay because they’re still grieving.” Some time had passed since their daughter’s death, but these people seem completely unable to function in society — at least, as much as we see them. Presumably, Doug runs a successful business as he can throw away hundreds of dollars a day on his “daughter” and cigarettes, but we never see him working and he can apparently just drop his business with the drop of a hat.
This leads to it being difficult to think that these are real characters. They’re simply not complex enough to feel real. I think this is also why Welcome to the Rileys feels as predictable as it does; if all of the character actions are guided by simple reasoning, then we can figure out what they’re going to do before the situation presents itself for them to act in that manner. I figured out the ending about an hour in, and was happy enough when I turned out to be right. I even got specifics of the ending — not just the big picture. There are no surprises here.
This is a film that continues to be watchable almost solely because of the performances. If it weren’t for them, I would have struggled to make it through. The plot is not well-developed, the characters act based solely on one event in their past, the pacing is very slow, nothing ever really gets accomplished, and it’s a very predictable experience. The actors are good, and it’s because of them that I didn’t mind finishing Welcome to the Rileys, but unless you’re a fan of one of the three leads, I can’t recommend giving it a watch.