“Welcome to the Rileys” is a movie about life after death. Not the supernatural sort, but the life that those left behind choose to live after a loved one dies. Well cast and nicely acted, it’s another piece of the puzzle of what Kristen Stewart’s career might look like after “Twilight” turns dark.
James Gandolfiini stars as Doug Riley, a sad, portly owner of an Indianapolis plumbing supply house who spends as little time as possible with his agoraphobic wife. Lois (Melissa Leo) keeps a perfect home, is meticulous about her hair, her cooking and everything else. But years before, their teenage daughter died. She hasn’t left the house since.
Another tragedy, and seeing the tombstone Lois bought for them to share with their daughter, sets him off.
“I don’t like having my name carved on a tombstone while I’m still alive.”
Lois says she was just being practical, but in her 50s with her little girl gone, she’s just waiting to die and figures Doug is, too.
But Doug’s sadness is interrupted by an out-of-town convention, and a chance stop in a New Orleans strip joint. Mallory (Stewart) is too skinny, too young and a little blitzed. Her lap dance sales pitch may leave Doug unmoved, but something in this scrawny teenager touches him. She is incurably coarse, living in filth in a house without power or running water. And she isn’t just a stripper. She’s turning tricks.
Actor turned screenwriter Ken Hixon (“Inventing the Abbots”) beautifully sets the table for what comes next. Doug’s interest in Mallory — not her real name — is paternal, not sexual. Here’s a teenager, living on her own, who needs help. And when you’ve got plumbing and wiring issues, there are worse things than having a plumbing supply guy take you on as a project.
Doug sees in her all the simple how-to-get-by life lessons he never got to pass along to his own daughter. Mallory can’t open her mouth without cursing. He’s not judgmental except in that regard. It makes her seem “cheap and immature and uneducated. And that may be the truth, but why advertise it?”
So Doug decides to stick around New Orleans and invest himself in her future. Not that he tells Lois that when he says he’s not coming home. And that sends Lois into a panic, one that might get her out of the house after nine years.
For all its sordid darkness, “Welcome to the Rileys” is a hopeful film. Stewart’s normal mannerisms — in film after film, she can’t stop playing with her hair — perfectly fit this lost, ungrateful and defiantly independent young woman. She’s a wreck, all dirt, bruises, sleepy eyes and chapped lips. Stewart and Gandolfini’s scenes have an edge, but her scenes with Leo have a moist-eyed warmth that give the film its heart.
Less successful is the effort to make Lois’s venture back into the great, wide world something comical. The levity is welcome, but the jokes — she’s forgotten how to drive — are thin.
There may be a metaphor about New Orleans itself in this story of ruin and loss and redemption. But the pleasures of “Welcome to the Rileys” are in the simplest human message of all. Take an interest in somebody who needs help and the life you save may be your own.
Cast: James Gandolfini, Kristen Stewart, Melissa Leo
Director: Jake Scott
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes
Rating: R for strong sexual content, brief drug use and pervasive language involving a teenager