Small and unpretentious, Welcome to the Rileys would be considered a kitchen-sink kind of personal drama, were there a kitchen sink involved. Ultimately, it's about people forced to talk about what they're feeling in ways they never have before.
As such, Jake Scott's nicely self-contained drama is a solid piece of filmmaking, built on an unfussy, honest script and three beautifully understated and brave performances.
In the film (which opens in limited release on Friday, 10/29/10), James Gandolfini plays Doug Riley, a plumbing-supply salesman from the Midwest who lives a measured, quiet life with his equally withdrawn wife, Lois (Melissa Leo). They both suffer from a personal tragedy that has damaged their marriage. Doug copes by having an affair with a waitress, Lois by never leaving their house.
Doug heads off for a business convention in New Orleans -- and, to the surprise of everyone, including himself, doesn't come back. He doesn't run away, exactly; rather, one night he begs off from convention carousing with his group and, instead, wanders Bourbon Street, eventually winding up in a strip club. There, he meets a stripper named Mallory (Kristen Stewart).
But when she takes him over to the private area for a lap dance -- and perhaps more -- he instead just wants to talk. She's awfully young for a place like this; do her parents know where she is? Eventually, he shows up at her rundown shack of a house, offering to pay for her company if he can stay there. No sex -- just meals and companionship without asking for anything else she expects a man to seek.
He is drawn to her by a sense of paternal protectiveness. Eventually we discover why -- and why his wife has developed her case of agoraphobia. But their personal tragedy, which has all but ended their marriage, ultimately leads them to treat Mallory with a kindness and parental concern she's never experienced before.
While there are blow-ups, misunderstandings and the like, Scott's script is more about three wounded people seeking a connection they've lost, or perhaps have never known. As bearlike and grumpy as Gandolfini has been in other roles, here there's a delicacy to his character, a wounded quality he can no more articulate than remedy. He captures the sense of a man who needs to nurture another person and who is drawn, almost magnetically, to this damaged girl.
Stewart, by contrast, is all jagged edges and instinct. She's been on her own so long that she's practically feral in her relationship to men. She doesn't know how to respond to Doug's fatherly concern and tenderness at first, except with suspicion. She's been abused so long that she is distrustful of anyone who treats her with kindness.
The third leg of this triangle is Leo, as the uptight wife who has walled herself off from her husband over the years out of a sense of guilt over her part in the tragedy. She desperately discovers a new way to reestablish communication with him to salvage their marriage. Leo's character is almost as skittish as Stewart's, but has a more natural (and self-aware) nurturing instinct than her husband.
Welcome to the Rileys isn't world-beating cinema. But it's a beautifully understated story with deep emotion that will capture the receptive viewer with surprising force.