A rare lead role for indie actress Zooey Deschanel sustains “Winter Passing,” a frosty little study in depression. This movie wants to be in the mode of Wes Anderson’s wry comedies such as “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” but doesn’t find its feet.
The story seems to be inspired by the reclusive writer J.D. Salinger, who became a culture hero after writing “The Catcher in the Rye” and has refused to publish anything or talk to the media for decades.
The movie’s heroine, played by Deschanel, is Reese Holden, and she has a father who sounds a lot like J.D. Salinger (“Holden” is presumably the film’s play on Holden Caulfield, “Catcher in the Rye” hero).
Reese, a struggling actress in New York City, is offered a great deal of money for a collection of her parents’ letters. This sends her to her now-widowed father’s house, where things have changed since her last visit.
Dad hasn’t changed, however. Ed Harris plays the alcoholic, dazed Don Holden, who’s every bit as remote as Reese remembered him. But now he’s being tended by two newcomers, who bunk at his place: Corbit (Will Ferrell), a sort of bodyguard-handyman, and Shelly (Amelia Warner), who looks suspiciously like an ex-student/mistress of the great writer.
What unfolds is a comedy of despair, as the tone shifts from the serious scenes in New York – not only is Reese promiscuous and unloving, she even kills her cat – to offbeat black humor.
The wild card is Will Ferrell, toning down his usual persona to fit the mood of this project. He plays a shy former guitarist for a Christian rock band, and although he never seems believable as someone who would enter Don Holden’s orbit, he’s an amiable addition to the ensemble.
Ed Harris, with his flyaway white hair and beard, looks a lot like Paul Newman here, and he does his usual meticulous work in a very sketchy role. English actress Amelia Warner is a wonderful find as his live-in caretaker.
First-time director Adam Rapp puts the film on the shoulders of Zooey Deschanel, whose monotone line readings and kooky timing have brightened movies such as “All the Real Girls” and “Elf” (she’s just about the only bright spot in this week’s “Failure to Launch”).
This role demands more emotional range than is usually required of her, and at times Deschanel seems as limited as her character in letting her colors out.
The movie has a similarly limited palette. This should be appealing to the art-house audience that enjoys movies by Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson, but it’s not enough to merit a recommendation.
“Winter Passing” HH
Spotty: A struggling actress returns home to visit her father, a J.D. Salinger-like reclusive writer. This black comedy doesn’t reach the level of a Wes Anderson picture, although it tries hard.
Rated: R for language, subject matter
Now showing: Uptown, Seattle