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NPR Arts & Life

The Romance Of Writing And The Beauty Of Maine On Full Display

A New York writer (Jason Sudeikis) and a young widow from rural Maine (Rebecca Hall) collaborate to write a biography of the woman's deceased husband, an acclaimed folk singer, in <em>Tumbledown</em>.
A New York writer (Jason Sudeikis) and a young widow from rural Maine (Rebecca Hall) collaborate to write a biography of the woman's deceased husband, an acclaimed folk singer, in <em>Tumbledown</em>.

The pleasant enough romantic drama Tumbledown follows two writers in Maine, a setting that here might as well be the Great American Dream for creative introverts. There's a wood-paneled cabin, lush wilderness, dogs at the beckon, and a bookstore whose owner is also the local newspaper publisher. On paper (ha), the sparks fly between the leads; in practice, the love affair is really with the idea of writing, singing, and capital-L living in such an idyllic Northeastern small town. It's a fantasy of luxury from a mostly lost time that will appeal to those willing to buy it, and may repel everyone else.

The two star-crossed wordsmiths are Hannah (Rebecca Hall), a newspaper columnist, and Andrew (Jason Sudeikis), a pop-culture professor who's bumbled up from New York to do research. They've convened on behalf of a third creative: Hannah's late husband, a hush-voiced folk singer who built a cult following with a single album he recorded in Maine before falling to his death on a hiking trail. Hannah overcomes her initial resistance to another "vulture" at her husband's grave and eventually hires Andrew to collaborate on his biography. Even setting aside the whole conflict-of-interest thing, this is a pretty dubious book project, since co-authors in general are more likely to plot each other's deaths than they are to fall in love.

Charming performances help sell the idea. Hall has been turning in great work for years in other romantic fare—she was the best thing about Vicky Cristina Barcelona—and here she knows her motivation as the grieving widow is more than a simple obstacle to the coupling the audience cares about. We get the sense her husband really meant something to her, and even when she finally spills secrets (there's a mild mystery surrounding the circumstances of his death), we sense she's still keeping some for herself.

Sudeikis is the bigger surprise: With this and Leslye Headland's recent Sleeping With Other People, the former Saturday Night Live player has proven himself to be a gifted romantic lead. He's pure bearded charm here, constantly using wry city-slicker humor to diffuse tense moments with small-town folk suspicious of his motives. And unlike many improv-ers, he's very good at backing away when the film wants him to. This is assuredly, and refreshingly, Hannah's story—she even insists her name comes first on the book.

Director Sean Mewshaw and writer Desiree Van Til (a real-life Maine couple) squeeze many small, clever moments like that into what could have been an overly precious concept. When Hannah and Andrew first size each other up at a diner, they whip out dual recorders and point them at each other like a Mexican standoff. At first Hannah feels she can write her husband's story alone—but of course she's too close to the source, as confirmed by a friend's polite take on an early draft that will be instantly familiar to anyone who's had to thumb through a stack of someone else's printed double-spaced pages.

Yet movies about writers have a tendency to get a little too... well, writerly, and this largely dialogue-driven film can't quite stop Andrew's flowery academic prose from escaping through the characters' mouths. Nor can it fully develop the townspeople, like Blythe Danner and Richard Masur as Hannah's needling parents, or keep even a daft he-man romantic rival (played by Magic Mike's Joe Manganiello) from spouting some self-conscious turns-of-phrase.

But this is natural. Tumbledownis the sort of movie that will have a character say there is "nothing cutting-edge" about the pivotal music that drives the plot, and mean the statement as a complement. If it's possible to be pastoral and quaint in a brazen, unapologetic way, Mewshaw and Van Til have managed it: Their film is occasionally lovely, occasionally cloying, and always... what's that word? "Romantic."

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