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Welcome to the Rileys

Quiet drama offers a refreshing take on a cliched tale

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Welcome to the Rileys

Directed by Jake Scott

Opens Dec. 10 at the Charles Theater

The sight of James Gandolfini admonishing anybody for excessive use of the word "fuck" and any of its iterations borders the cosmically risible. He's the actor, after all, who spent nearly a decade starring in a series that followed a glut of suburban Joisy poets of the F-bomb. The Sopranos' "fuck" use ranged from the aphoristically mundane (Tony: "There's an old Italian saying: You fuck up once, you lose two teeth") to the utilitarian ("fuckin'" the default adjective of choice) to the downright brilliant (Christopher dismissing Jackie Jr. as "Little Lord Fuckpants"). After all, "The Sopranos, Uncensored," a collection of every instance of profanity in the series, runs 27 minutes.

Gandolfini's performance as Doug Riley in director Jake Scott's intimate Welcome to the Rileys, though, is so removed from his hulking intensity as Tony Soprano that the above thought is only a passing fancy. Rileys is slice-of-life little drama in a minor key, with Gandolfini correspondingly subdued. Doug is a middle-aged owner of a wholesale plumbing supply company in Indianapolis who travels down to New Orleans for a convention. Something's amiss in his life. His wife of 30 years, Lois (Melissa Leo), is an agoraphobe who never leaves their ordinary, well-kept home. Something has erected an unspoken barrier between Lois and Doug. He sleeps with a waitress at the 24-hour diner he frequents after playing poker with the guys; she waits up and he doesn't ask her to turn the light off when he gets in bed. She doesn't like him smoking in the house, so when nicotine calls he retreats to the garage to smoke among the tools, the car, etc. It's the same place he goes at night to cry in the dark by himself, which Lois hears through the door she never opens to ask if he wants to talk about it. And during his New Orleans business trip, Doug wanders into a French Quarter gentleman's club and begins a relationship with the half-dressed stripper Mallory (Kristen Stewart) who invites him upstairs for a private session and champagne.

You have and haven't seen this one before, and director Scott establishes a wonderfully awkward rhythm and pace for revealing his characters' lives, relationships, and needs. Doug is obviously seeking something he isn't getting at home, but it's not what Mallory is trying to sell him. Turns out she's a 16-year-old runaway from Florida who lives in a decrepit house with no electricity, and Doug decides to take it upon himself to help her out. Back in Indianapolis a ghost haunts his and Lois' lives, which Rileys reveals in a quick shot of a young girl's bedroom in their house, a gravestone, and the way the mood of a conversation changes anybody asks one of the Rileys about a daughter or children.

As written by Inventing the Abbots' Ken Hixon, Rileys has in store for its grieving parents less redemption or understanding than something much more pedestrian and necessary: communication. And it's by turning the emotional stakes way down that the movie accrues a rather touching desuetude. The drama becomes less about what happens between people and more about what's happening under their skins.

That internalized action is what makes the movie's strongest and most subtle performance such a delight. Ever since Leo's great turn as Homicide's detective Sgt. Kay Howard, the veteran actress has made a modest career out of playing women with fortitude who are tough in mind and body. Lois, however, isn't so much a frail woman but one who isn't taking any chances, with her own emotions or the world that lies just outside her door. When Doug calls her and tells her he's not coming back for a while, Lois  somehow marshalls the focus to pack, get behind the wheel, and set out toward Louisiana. It feels a little implausible at first, but Leo lets Lois' inner will slowly surface, and the closer she gets to New Orleans the less she resembles the woman who wouldn't leave her Indianapolis home. How she speaks is different, how she responds to questions is different, and how she carries herself is different.

And the performances rarely have to leap off the screen from there. There's no scene of confrontation or revelation or emotional epiphany of any sort. Instead, Rileys casts Lois, Doug, and Mallory's short time together less as the road to wellville than the way station on the way to somewhere where personal life change might be possible. At one point Doug visits a cemetery for a recently passed friend and sees the headstone Lois bought for them. There's his and his wife's name, etched into stone, under each their birth years followed by a dash and an as yet unknown death date. It's the perfect visual metaphor for Doug and Lois' lives. Prior to New Orleans, they've been together but apart, sitting around waiting to die. After New Orleans, well, Welcome to the Rileys doesn't suggest they're on their way to happily ever after. But Lois did leave the house. Doug once again sees her as the woman he married. And they are talking. For the Rileys, that's a start.

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