Review: Welcome to the Rileys


Welcome to the Rileys

I have some friendly career advice for Kristen Stewart: Kristen, it's time to invest the fortune you made from the Twilight movies (for investment advice, consult a financial advisor -- not a film critic) and refuse all future roles in Hollywood schlockbusters, especially those marketed to tweenage girls. You're rich. You're famous. So, now you can prove your acting bona fides in grown-up films like Welcome to the Rileys.

Seriously, Kristen. I know Twilight's Edward Cullen is all sensitive and romantic and whatnot. But when you can so convincingly inhabit the role of a bitter teenage runaway turning tricks in a dank New Orleans strip club, you really don't need ol' Eddie Wussyfangs anymore. You have the acting chops to do much more, and it's time to move on.

Welcome to the Rileys is the leisurely, low-key story of the titular and terribly sad Riley family. Doug Riley (James Gandolfini) is an Indianapolis plumbing supply business owner who, along with his wife, Lois (Melissa Leo), lives a half-empty life since the couple's daughter was killed eight years earlier. The only spark in Doug's life is his ongoing affair with a waitress. When the affair ends tragically, Doug is left with little more than his crumbling marriage and soulless job. Lois has her own set of seemingly intractable problems; withdrawn and fearful since her daughter's death, she rarely ventures beyond her front door. Even walking to the mailbox is more than she can bear.

So, it's little surprise that while on a business trip to New Orleans, a bored and aimless Doug finds himself in a seedy strip club chatting with Mallory (Stewart), a hard-living, underage stripper with a fake ID and a battered worldview. The two part ways angrily after a misunderstanding in one of the club's private rooms. But they cross paths later that night in a restaurant, where they begin a very unlikely friendship. Doug ends up spending the night in Mallory's decaying rental house, but there is no sex; he sees her as a daughter figure, not a prostitute.

At this point, the story becomes a bit unbelievable. Doug decides to stay in New Orleans and help Mallory, becoming a sort of roommate, handyman and sugar daddy with entirely honorable intentions. Meanwhile, Lois – after a perplexing phone call from Doug explaining he would be gone until further notice – somehow musters the courage to drive to New Orleans. Her road trip is torturous, and of course she's less than pleased when Doug introduces her to his sexy new teenage roommate. But as she gets to know Mallory, she begins to understand her angst-ridden husband's motivations and becomes the parentless girl's surrogate mom, joining Doug on a rather misguided mission to liberate Mallory from the dark and dangerous corners of New Orleans.

Yes, the idea behind Welcome to the Rileys is highly farfetched. Why would an affluent and well established (albeit dysfunctional) Midwestern couple want to nurture a 16-year-old New Orleans prostitute, even if she reminds them of their long-dead daughter? But despite its unlikely narrative arc, Welcome to the Rileys is a captivating film, thanks to the strength of its performances if not the plausibility of its story. Never mind that some of the characters' actions aren't fully explained; Stewart, Gandolfini and Leo are so dead-on that the story is more believable than it should be. Their intense, nuanced portrayals make us accept their characters' sometimes contradictory behaviors. For example, Doug has no problem with strippers, but he objects to Mallory's obscenity-laden rants. This would make little sense if not for the subtle way that Gandolfini transforms Doug from a strip club patron to a father figure, softening his features to turn a jaded customer into a well-meaning parent who thinks a teenage girl will go a lot farther in life if she stops dropping the F-bomb in every conversation.

Stewart's Mallory is ferociously pitiful, but the last thing she wants is pity. Physically and emotionally bruised (the physical bruises are subtle, the emotional ones not so much), she never asks for help but knows better than to refuse it. She's as clueless as she is streetwise, knowing how to make fast cash but stupidly carrying all of it with her when she visits crime-ridden motels. She's also immensely sexy, but makes us feel guilty for thinking so, especially when the light of day reveals a face far too shopworn for someone so young.

Leo gives the film's quietest performance, conveying Lois's deeply rooted suffering through pauses and vacant stares, in a counterpoint to Doug's gruff barking and Mallory's tough-girl histrionics. The stoic, taciturn Lois is a role tailor-made for Leo, who has built a highly respected career playing similar long-suffering but courageous women, most famously in her Oscar-nominated turn as Ray Eddy in Frozen River.

New Orleans, of course, is a no-brainer backdrop for this gritty story, although the New Orleans place-as-character motif is wisely underplayed. There are glimpses of Bourbon Street and flood-ravaged houses, but the camera doesn't dwell on them. There are plenty of striking, lingering shots, but they focus mostly on the characters in the foreground while letting the Big Easy recede into the background. Most of the action in Welcome to the Rileys happens in the dark, which is a convenient bit of visual realism; it gives the film a properly seedy, low-light look while also fitting with the story, because most strippers and prostitutes ply their trade late at night.

Despite my dour description of Welcome to the Rileys, it isn't a total downer. It's certainly not a feel-good film, but it isn't entirely depressing, either. There isn't much humor, but there are enough positive moments to create a glimmer of hope. If Welcome to the Rileys is about anything, it's about the possibility that damaged couples like the Rileys and cast-off kids like Mallory can live better lives. But in a nod to painful realism, the movie constantly reminds us that getting there won't be easy and may not happen at all.

Although Welcome to the Rileys isn't quite in league with the best of its mean-streets genre, it's a well crafted example of character-driven filmmaking with plenty of relevance to our mean-streets times. It's worth seeing for many reasons, if not for Stewart's performance alone.

WOW Thanks for this

Thanks for this insightful review!
I am a lover of character driven movies and this has three major references for me! Gandolfini, Leo and Stewart! This girl is so talent...

The only thing that I don't agree with you and all the critics or movie goers who say that "the story becomes a bit unbelievable" because life is unpredictable and full of surprises. It is of course a fiction piece of work so the writer has the liberty to create situations maybe weird for express the human feeling that he want to question, like in this movie, love, lost and hope!

But... for me, the storyline of a business man who suddenly decide to turn his life 360º and try to not be a father but a reference of love for a runaway girl is not so weird.

I am a Brazilian who lives in Rio de Janeiro. A city with 6M of people living in the city plus more 5M living in the metropolitan area. So, Rio de Janeiro is a city with 11M people to administrate, with all the problems of the big metropolis in the world.
Some years ago a Swiss woman who lived in Brazil for a time, she was international correspondent working (if I not wrong) for AP met a 12/13 years boy, who was living in the streets and decide to bring him to her home. She started to take care of him, gave him all the things that a parent could give to a son. One day she arrived home and found it totally destroyed! Every piece of furniture and more were broken! She sat and started to cry. He was waiting for her to send him away or to do a bad thing with him but she just started to cry. She realised that she was doing something wrong because she didn't have success to show him all her love.
He could not understand love and be loved. He thought she wanted something from him, sexual or whatever, but as she was not doing any of it, he was in agony and insecure, so he did that thing to provoke her.
She decide he was more important than her work or any thing, so she change her life, her work to stay more in home with him, doing all the things with him and showed him that he was secured and loved. Several years past, she adopted him legally and returned to Europe with him to live near her family for him to have a big family. For many years her life was an agony because he fight each thing with her just when he became a man he realised that he was loved and secured and never again he would be alone. He was worst to be love!
Last year he returned to Brazil with his wife and opened an ONG to work with kid who lives in the streets. He decide that the best way to honor "his mother" would be try to do the some for another kids.
This story seems fiction and could became a movie but it was real, it was life!
So... I can believe that could happen an extreme situation as this of The Rileys!

Sorry for my English and this big commentary but I was wanting to tell this story for one of you critics that gave a less grade because the theme of the story.