Film Review: Ashby (★★★)

ashby_ver2It’s great to see Mickey Rourke getting a complex role again. He’s an actor that thrives with the right material, and he has it here. Combine that with up and coming star Nat Wolff being given a strong vehicle to work with and Ashby is something really nice. It’s a throwback film of sorts, one that gives ample time to conversation and developing relationships between characters. Especially given the plot, that’s not something that you could immediately count on being the case nowadays. By and large, writer/director Tom McNamara is able to execute what is essentially a high concept coming of age story, something that would have been right at home in the 1980’s. There are missteps, to be sure, but Rourke and Wolff are never among them. Ashby has small ambitions, which can be problematic if the film is not up to snuff, but this one certainly is. A movie with a big heart, there’s plenty to enjoy here. Witty, unusual, and well acted, the good far outweighs the bad with this flick. I’m not sure whether the late September release date is overly confident on the part of the distributor or a sad dumping of a nice little indie, but either way, the timing is curious. Still, what we have here is well worth seeing, so no matter the time of year, it would be a worthwhile endeavor. Don’t expect the second coming, but Ashby is a very satisfying coming of age dramedy.

Teenager Ed Wallis (Wolff) isn’t thrilled to be moving to a new town with his mother June Wallis (Sarah Silverman), particularly since it will put an even bigger strain on the relationship he has with his father. June is dead set on finding a new man, but Ed just wants to navigate his new High School, which is a suburban football mecca. Luckily, Ed harbors dreams of playing on the team, even if they’re not dreams he ever expects to put into motion. Many aspects of his life are upended however a school project requires him to interview a senior citizen. He chooses next door neighbor Ashby Holt (Rourke), who isn’t immediately receptive. Ed wears him down and soon is his personal driver, which leads to the revelation that Ashby used to be a hitman for the CIA. He’s retired now and has a terminal illness, but sees something in Ed and wants to impart some wisdom. That leads him to actually go out for the team and talk to a girl, the bookish but witty Eloise (Emma Roberts), who is studying the brains of football players. Third act plot developments don’t fully satisfy, but watching all of these characters interact is a real pleasure and the main reason to see Ashby.

ASHBY_web_1I’ve been saying that Nat Wolff is going to be a star sooner rather than later, and this role is further proof of it. Wolff plays a bit of a nerd, but also one with jock tendencies and a quick wit. This is far from a stock character and he really pulls it off in spades. It’s one of his finest performances to date. As for Mickey Rourke, he’s got his best role since The Wrestler and clearly relishes it. This is a moving performance and one full of emotion, which Rourke embraces. He’s intense, but also willing to be generous with Wolff, leading to some great chemistry between the two. Emma Roberts also has strong chemistry with Wolff, though she’s somewhat saddled with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl role. That being said, Roberts is still pretty good and very enjoyable here. The same goes for Sarah Silverman, though she’s underused for sure. As for the supporting cast, we have the likes of Kevin Dunn, Zachary Knighton, Michael Lerner, and more. It’s very much all about Rourke and Wolff though, that much is clear.

Filmmaker Tony McNamara shows an aptitude both as a writer and a director for this sort of high concept dramedy. Ashby could have been a total misfire in the wrong hands, but McNamara is more than up to the task. His filmmaking has bits of Grosse Pointe Blank in it, perhaps as an homage or just as a coincidence, but it worked for me. He gives his main cast plenty to do and then gives them the space to make the best of it, which I definitely appreciated. Ashby is perhaps a few minutes too long, less confident when dealing with hitman stuff than High School shenanigans, and doesn’t nail the ending, but none of the small issues take away from an otherwise mostly satisfying little flick.

Overall, Ashby is an enjoyable indie dramedy that you don’t really get to see much anymore. I wasn’t able to see it at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year, so I was pleased to finally get to peep it out. I could see folks at Tribeca being slightly dismissive of it, but not me. Especially if you like Rourke and/or Wolff, this is a strong vehicle for them. It can be a bit quirky at times, but the journey more than makes the destination worth going to. Ashby isn’t great, but it is pretty good and well deserving of a recommendation from yours truly. Give it a shot and see what you think…

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!