Review by Jay Bowman
A realistic deception of the pain and anxiety suffered by a family as its patriarch dies is a hard sell for a movie. If you think back on movies whose plots focus around inter-family drama and suffering, they almost always have a few spots of hope, even if they don’t have a conclusively happy ending. I don’t know whom to blame this on specifically, so I’m going to take the high road and pin it on the moving-going public in general. Shame on you, people who would rather be uplifted than crushed by life.
Anyway, Nothing To Do delivers on its title by embracing the grim scenario of a dying loved one. The film opens with Kenny (Paul Fahrenkopf) visiting his father Irv (Philip Lawton) in the hospital, only to learn he’s had several recent stays he knew nothing about. He’s told the only two options are to are to undergo potentially painful treatments on a monthly basis that might extend Irv’s life or to have Irv enter hospice and make him comfortable as he awaits death. Irv chooses the latter (a decision based partially on his wife’s death a year prior), and it becomes Kenny’s duty to be his caretaker.
The remainder of the movie is slow moving as Kenny carries out the mundane tasks that have become his responsibility. He and his sister Rachel (Connie Bowman) butt heads over what’s best for their father. She refuses to believe something can’t be done, thinking instead that Kenny convinced their father that this was the best thing out of his own laziness. Whereas Kenny has accepted his father’s desire to die, we watch Rachel struggle with the very idea as she argues with nurses and tries to place blame somewhere. Both siblings go through stages of grief as they patiently wait for the end.
It’s a very claustrophobic film, confined to bedrooms and hospitals, car rides and meals. The microcosm of Nothing To Do helps to serve the frustrating anxiety we feel knowing how things will end. But the film’s tight confines are only one of its charms. Its greatest strength is how we get glimpses of Kenny’s life outside of the horrible situation he finds himself in. There’s an awkward attempt to strike up a romance with his father’s neighbor and ongoing concerns about his job at a radio station. Even when someone is dying, life has to go on, a point the film makes with delicate subtly.
Performances are great across the board, but Farhenkopf’s efforts to capture the essence of an easy-going but caring son really deserve attention. He goes from vulnerability to humor without the tonal shift feeling unnatural. And there is a lot of humor in here. Irv is sarcastic early on, albeit with tones of fatalism. Later, when Kenny is giving his father instructions on how to give him a sign after he passes and Irv asks him to clarify some of the specifics, the concern Irv shows about getting it just right and how quickly the details become complicated is genuinely funny.
Still, death wins out, and even though we know this from the first ten minutes, the panic when Kenny sees his father in his final struggle is palpable. There are no rough spots when the mood changes like this. With death and inevitability as the central theme, it’s impressive that the film never dives deep into issues of morality. Though there were many places to interject some preaching, it remains a story about people first and foremost rather than browbeating the audience.
It’s not without its faults, though. Rather than play on the strength of the cast alone to carry the emotional weight, there was an odd motif of Irv literally seeing Kenny as a child again during a later heart to heart conversation. I’m not sure if it was meant to be sweet, indicative of his worsening mental state, both, or something else entirely, but it stuck out as a heavy-handed attempt to make the audience feel when all it really did was distract from the moment.
Overall, Nothing to Do is a happy yet difficult story. If you’re looking for something with an ending where all the problems are solved, this won’t be your cup of tea. But if you want something that tackles a difficult subject without pretension, this is a strong contender.
Comes to iTunes March 15.