Whatever pleasures the best-selling novel “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” offered readers are wrung out of it in its enervated adaptation to the big screen.
It mopes along when it isn’t leaving out what seem to be whole passages, transitions, backstory and the like. The action doesn’t flow at all, and relationships have a brittle, abrupt quality.
What’s left is Hallmark Channel mawkish, with halfhearted performances and perfunctory direction. And “Fikry” is Exhibit A about why you don’t let authors adapt their novels. It takes guts to streamline, to know what is cinematic and essential to the story, and to “murder your darlings with edits.”
The film version fails utterly to provide a big screen boost to the acting career of Kunal Nayyar, the “Big Bang Theory” alumnus in the title role. He takes an amusing curmudgeon, a bookish loner given to exasperated diatribes about literature because as a bookstore owner he has his opinions, and plays him as if he’s lost the will to live.
While that’s fair, as that is the widowed character’s MO when we meet him, it doesn’t make for anything embraceable. Nayyar plays the guy as no one you’d like to know all the way through the film, when we’re supposed to warm to him as other characters eventually do.
A.J. drinks wine until he’s blackout drunk, insults customers and even the cute publishing rep Amy (Lucy Hale) trying to talk him into highlighting her wares. This little rant should be fun, and it lands like a long-rotten melon dropped from a reasonable height.
“I do not like post-modernism, post-apocalyptic settings, post-mortem narrators or magical realism. I do not like children’s books, especially those with orphans. And I prefer not to clutter my shelves with ‘young adult.’ I am repulsed by ghost-written novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie-tied editions.” And his least favorite of all are “slim literary memoirs about little old men whose wives have died of cancer.”
The lesson here is that if you’re a dyspeptic widowed bookstore owner, downloading all this bile — flatly and blandly — to a publishing house representative, she is destined to fall in love with you by the second act.
But first, A.J. has to have an adorable moppet (Charlotte Thanh Theresin) abandoned in the kiddie book stacks of Island Books, his store on remote and fictional Alice Island. Since it’s an island and this is winter, child protective services can’t come fetch her. He’ll have to take care of little Maya. And even though it’s an island, it takes the inept cops (David Arquette is their bookish chief) a while to find the mother, and when they do, she’s a corpse.
A.J. will need help from his former sister-in-law (Christina Hendicks) who lives down the lane with her smug, womanizing author-husband (Scott Foley) if he’s going to be able to take care of a 25 month old.
The idea is that as we follow this story, spanning close to two decades, A.J. softens into someone sweeter as Maya grows up, the cute publishing rep notices and he eventually forgets about the first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tamerlane and Other Poems” that he sobered up and discovered missing early in the first act.
A lot of what might make that journey appealing is left out of this story.
The film promises simple, sitcom setups and never gets around to the punchlines. We skip and skip over so much that Amy and A.J.’s “romance” never feels romantic, merely curtailed and obligatory in terms of the requirements of the “plot.”
Characters that might have edge have their rough edges rubbed off. Random scenes show us flashbacks or what might be scenes from a novel, or could have really happened to this character or another one.
There are readings from the book that sets our big romance in motion or by the teenaged Maya (Blaire Brown) as part of a short story competition. And they sound like something the poor actors improvised on the spot — trite, dull, cliched and meretricious.
Not enough charm is managed by the Hyannis, Massachusetts settings, and even if it did that wouldn’t save this godawful book report of a screenplay, or the charmless, witless and artless attempt at playing the title role.
Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language, some suggestive material and thematic elements.
Cast: Kunal Nayyar, Lucy Hale, David Arquette, Scott Foley, Blaire Brown, Jordyn McIntosh, Charlotte Thanh Theresin and Christina Hendricks
Credits: Directed by Hans Canosa, scripted by Gabrielle Nevin, based on her novel. A Vertical release.
Running time: 1:45