“… it was next to impossible for tears to form with my eyes rolling so intensely.”
Im not often afraid, but I do have fears. Spiders, the ocean, dying alone, and getting a degenerative disease like Alzheimer’s or Dementia. That last one is arguably the scariest one because it strips you of who you are as a person. Many films have tried, and succeeded to capture the severity of such diseases and portray them in a way that is engaging without sensationalizing them. What They Had is the latest of such films, unfortunately without the success.
Of course this disease is only the call to action in the story which is truly about family dynamics, but that is kind of where What They Had falls apart for me. To cut to the chase: What They Had tries to bite off more than it can chew. It presents this complex story and characters who literally have a lifetime of history together and expects the audience to immediately latch-on and be invested in what we are seeing. It doesn’t understand that this kind of audience connection takes time, and this is why the beginning of the film is particular feels very bloated and rushed.
Aside from these storied characters battling it out for their time in the limelight, What They Had features an all-star cast that unfortunately does the same thing. It is understandable that the filmmaker wanted to give each one of these actors their time to shine, and they each did get that, but when it wasn’t their time it still felt as though they were fighting for their moment. It was honestly kind of exhausting.
This leads to scenes not only feeling disorienting due to the sensory overload of upwards of five actors battling for your attention and praise, but it also seems really desperate at other times when actors *cough* Hilary Swank *cough* are ad-libbing lines that do nothing but make them look dumb just for a chance at their voice being heard.
This may sound like favouritism at this point but the best part of the movie was hands-down Michael Shannon’s performance as Nick, the burdened son who is tasked with caring for his stubborn parents. Shannon acts as the only relatable character in my eyes, at least in the beginning of the film. It’s strange because in a sense his performance almost breaks the fourth wall, because as the other actors are arguing about shit that doesn’t matter he’s the one to scream at them to cut the shit.
But this brings up yet another issue in What They Had, the tone. Based off of what I have said, it would be more than safe to assume that What They Had is a dramatic film. And while it does have dramatic moments this strange comedic tone is constantly looming overhead. This creates an ultimately confusing and awkward experience when the film lands a joke and you’re not sure whether to laugh or not. Maybe it was just due to my expectations for the film, but I certainly didn’t expect 90 minutes of Alzheimer’s themed stand-up.
The film did improve toward its end with more emotional moments and time separate allowing for almost very actor to achieve what they had been striving for since the camera started rolling, but unfortunately the damage had already been done. And to top that off, almost as one last “fuck you” the film ends on a note that would have been emotional if it had any idea what emotion truly was. Once again it goes for a punchline that I assume is supposed to make you chuckle as tears well in your eyes, but unfortunately it was next to impossible for tears to form with my eyes rolling so intensely.
Overall What They Had was a movie that I wish was better. It had all of the fixings of a great movie, but unfortunately none of the experience needed by the director. There were some high-points, but overall What They Had exists as a stain on the “memory loss” genre.
I give What They Had a D