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Review: Welcome to the Rileys (2010)

November 21, 2010

Doug and Lois Riley look like a couple out of another era. Doug (James Gandolfini) is a small business owner who treats losing $1,000 a week on poker as if it’s no big deal. Lois (Melissa Leo), for all intents and purposes, is a stay-at-home wife. They live in a comfy suburban house in Indianapolis, and never seem to worry about any of that mortgage nonsense. Which, of course, has a lot to do with the fact that Jake Scott’s Welcome to the Rileys was shot in the fall of 2008, right around the time when all hell broke loose on the economic front. Amazing how quickly we forget how things may have been just a few years ago, though.
Which is not to say the Doug and Lois are a happy couple. A plaque by their door proclaims “Welcome to the Rileys,” but it quickly becomes apparent that the Rileys no longer exist as such. Though they still live in the same house and share the same bed, they can hardly be said to live together. Doug stays out late (he’s having an affair with Vivian, a waitress at the local pancake house) and, when he comes home, goes straight to bed and falls asleep shortly after wishing his wife a perfunctory good night. In an early scene, Doug is shown smoking in the garage at night, while Lois talks to him from inside the house, highlighting the fact that they barely exist in the same space anymore (the scene hammers it home when it ends with Doug telling Lois to close the door if she doesn’t want the smell of smoke to get inside the house).
The reason for this estrangement, we soon learn, is the death of Doug and Lois’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Emily, some eight years ago. That Lois blames herself for Emily’s death should be immediately obvious to anyone who’s ever seen a movie, even before we learn that she hasn’t left the house once in the past eight years. Doug has trouble coping with his wife’s depression, especially after he discovers that she’s had a tombstone with their names on it put up in the local cemetery, next to their daughter’s grave. While in New Orleans for a convention, Doug runs into Mallory (Kristen Stewart), a young runaway from Florida turned stripper who looks an awful lot like his dead daughter. On a whim, he decides to stay in Louisiana and to help Mallory get her life together. This, in turns, prompts Lois to finally face her fears as she leaves Indianapolis for New Orleans to find her husband.

The story of Welcome to the Rileys isn’t mind-blowingly original, to say the least. How many times have we seen desperate strangers brought together by chance so that they can, pardon the cliché, learn to live again? And at the heart of Jake Scott’s film is the same kind of contrived coincidence that plagues the genre: on a business trip to New Orleans, Doug tries to avoid his colleagues by entering a random strip club, where the one stripper he even pays attention to (because she quite literally falls in his lap) turns out to look almost exactly like his late daughter. What are the odds indeed?
However, Welcome to the Rileys has one thing going for it that easily redeems it for all its faults, namely, its brilliant cast. Leo is great as a woman who’s lived in her own head for so long she has to relearn even the most basic social skills (the scene in which she gets hit on by a stranger in a roadside diner showcases that process in a very effectively subdued way), while Gandolfini’s large frame and sweet smile loom protectively over the entire movie.

The true star, though, is Stewart. If you’ve only ever seen her in the Twilight movies, that may surprise you. Not so much if you’ve seen Adventureland and The Runaways, in which she proved that she could be much more than insipid Bella Swan. Here she plays perhaps her most ambitious role to date as an underage stripper/hooker with a foul mouth and major trust issues, and she is spot-on all the way through. At once rebellious and vulnerable, she makes a great team with Gandolfini, with whom she has undeniable chemistry. “Don’t be mad at me,” she says after he drags her out of bed to go to the laundromat. “You can’t.” Shoulders slouched. Eyes on the ground. Her despair barely hidden behind the defiance in her voice.
In the end, Welcome to the Rileys is a little too neat of a film, many of its developments a little too convenient, the salvation its characters find a little too easy. Yet what I remember of it, first and foremost, is that heartbraking “you can’t,” and Gandolfini’s arm around Stewart’s shoulders.

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