A low-key drama about a woman rediscovering herself after a family tragedy, writer-director Vicky Wight’s “The Lost Husband,” adapted from the novel by Katherine Center, is a no-frills romance-drama that pulls from the same well of tropes as a Nicholas Sparks novel. Anchored by two good, lived-in, performances by Leslie Bibb and Josh Duhamel (playing a variation of his “Safe Haven” character, minus that film’s insane third-act revelations), “The Lost Husband” exists as comfort food, elevating the “city girl in a country” setting that has essentially kept Hallmark’s film department afloat. The fact that “The Lost Husband” is essentially forgettable is, perhaps, part of its overall design—providing a little romance, a little drama, and a few G-rated laughs before receding into the endless void of fish-out-of-water romances.
Having lost her husband in a car crash, Bibb’s Libby Moran has been living with her emotionally devoid mother before deciding to take her two children to a quiet Texas farm owned by her Aunt Jean (Nora Dunn), who runs the farm with her rough manager James (Duhamel). As Libby and the children settle into their new life, James teaches her the ins and outs of farming, testing her ability to be self-dependent. We all know what happens next—Libby and James start up a flirtation that eventually leads to a romance, while the supporting cast of characters deal with their own minor domestic dramas (Libby’s daughter is bullied at school, Jean is hiding a family secret, etc…).
While the plot could have been assembled through Mad Libs, Wight is an adept director spinning a by-the-numbers yarn with a sense of naturalism missing from a number of similar films. Her camera lingers on Bibb’s grounded reactions to the foreign farm life, not dwelling too much on the comic hijinks that often come with the set-up. Further, the film goes in an unexpected direction with the introduction of Sunshine (Herizen F. Guardiola), a younger, palm-reading free-spirit, who is both abrupt in her questions, asking repeatedly how Libby’s husband died, but also a vehicle for Libby to exorcise her previous life. Duhamel, as well, is perhaps too one-note, playing the college graduate who turned to a simpler life of farming, but he plays that note well.
When it comes to developing these characters’ backstories, however, Wight (and Center) piles on the drama, giving each supporting character a ridiculously overwrought story. Sunshine had previous dreams of becoming a singer in California, Jean is forced to grapple with telling Libby a secret about her childhood, James has a wife who had a stroke, and the list goes on. Later in the film, when the flashbacks start to overwhelm, the seemingly harmless story goes in a number of different traumatic directions. “The Lost Husband” is simultaneously overwhelmed with grief and, oddly, breezy. This is not a criticism, per se, but sometimes the discordant tones lead to a strange viewing experience.
However, Bibb and Duhamel keep the film afloat during these strange turns into melodrama, with Bibb bringing a sense of realism to her character’s attempts to cope with losing everything, and the two have chemistry together. A scene in which they inadvertently become trapped in a refrigerator (of course) works if only because of grounded dynamic, never overplaying the love/hate vibe that often threatens to overwhelm films of this type. While their romance may, at times, become background to other issues, both actors bring a sense of believability. Dunn is similarly grounded, playing a stoic matriarch that has her own traumas to work through.
There’s little egregiously terrible about “The Lost Husband,” but a lot of the film is less than memorable. The relaxed, casual vibe is often at odds with the amount of sorrow that has seemingly crippled these characters. Yet, it’s the type of film that you already know the ending before the first scene is over. It’ll work out in the end—the audience knows it, and it seems the characters do as well, perhaps explaining their overall nonchalance. That being said, there’s something about that is oddly comforting, and that’s a welcome feeling right now. [C+]