Holed up in a dank motel in the middle of a particularly harsh winter, he’s also battling to gain visitation rights to his six-year-old daughter Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo) although her mother is insistent that, by law, he shouldn’t even be acknowledged as the girl’s father anymore. Joby slides deeper into depression and anguish, and all his ineffective lawyer (Jon Heder) can do is sit and watch him down whisky shots and (in the film’s most indulgent scene) air-guitar along to Whitesnake. Could an afternoon with his daughter (which he spitefully engineers) offer the chance to redeem himself and atone for his past as an absentee father?
It’s a long slog till we discover the outcome as director So Yong Kim is happy to let Joby’s plight meander along at a snail’s pace for much of the film’s duration. This may not have been an issue if the central character wasn’t as whiny and unsympathetic, but despite Dano’s best efforts, there’s not a lot to like or root for in Joby. The actor is framed in a tight close-up and over-the-shoulder for much of the film but there just isn’t enough going on with him internally to warrant this intimate shooting style. Heder does quite well with his small(ish) role, showcasing a subtle side to the actor which hasn’t been seen before, but ultimately his character is pretty limp too, with nowhere to go.
The film only really comes alive towards the end when he is finally granted some time with his young daughter. Like LUV, the director here has found a talented young actress who is free from any type of artifice in her performance and your heart really goes out to her, without it forcefully tugging on those strings. A film focusing solely on Joby and his daughter’s reconnection would have presented a much more engaging premise to what is offered up here.
Having delivered on the final act, the director then struggles to provide a satisfying means of tying up Joby’s emotional catharsis and opts to steal, beat for beat, the very end of Five Easy Pieces. Not only does this leave you scratching your head, but it also betrays any character continuity established beforehand. Disappointing.