“Made in Italy,” a drama about the importance of family, isn’t one of the worst movies of the year, but it has to be the most disappointing. Starring Liam Neeson and his son, Micheal Richardson, it’s based partly on the two reeling from the loss of Natasha Richardson (who died in a skiing accident in 2009), and partly on director James D’Arcy’s experience losing his father at an early age. But in a twist that undermines the tenderness that makes autobiographical stories (and movies) so appealing, this isn’t a personal film. “Made in Italy” is a rom-com.
Richardson plays Jack, an art gallery owner with no money, no car, and a pending divorce. Enter Jack’s father, Robert (Neeson), a wealthy painter living in London who has a magnificent villa in Italy that is worth a small fortune, mainly for its panoramic views of Tuscany’s wine orchards, beautifully shot in natural light by Mike Eley. The house is straight out of an Eric Rohmer movie, a Tuscan-style mansion awash in apricot colors, ringed with trees and flowers and herbs, and so gosh darn stunning it ruins the film.
The movie follows Jack and Robert trying to sell the house, which Robert inherited from his late wife. But the second you see it, you know there is no way they are going to sell it. Sure, it could use some fixing—the windows are smashed, the terrace is a mess, and the living room is clouded with dust, which is to say nothing of the weasel locked in one of the rooms. But come on, the place comes with a lake! The house also flows with memories from Jack’s childhood, and fizzy montages of the two painting, bonding, and building suggest the estate and the relationship are salvageable.
The film, however, isn’t as easy to fix. The movie’s flaws have nothing to do with the construction. Neeson and Richardson build solid chemistry and lay the foundation for emotional scenes later on. And Neeson, for the most part, pulls off the transition from action hero (“Taken,” “Non-Stop”) to everyday dad. What dooms the movie are the contrivances D’Arcy fabricates in the rom-com sections, leaving behind the father-son relationship in the process.
The film’s narrative is buried under commercial clutter. It’s as if a Rohmer movie or Frances Mayes story were intercepted by studio marketing execs who said, “You know what? This is too smart for our audience, let’s throw in a romance and shelve the father-son stuff until the end.” Once Jack meets Natalia (Valeria Bilello), a local chef who charms him with risotto, Jack and Robert rarely share the screen. The emotional core of the film is gone, and everything goes downhill. There’s little spark to the dinners Jack and Natalia share, less in the cable TV sensibility of the filmmaking. The soundtrack leans heavily on indie rock; the script hits all the predictable genre beats; the locals are drawn as tasteless Italian stereotypes (a sight gag involving spaghetti and meatballs is downright offensive). But hey, at least the pasta looks good, right?
“Made in Italy” is ostensibly a story about remodeling one’s life for the better, with Jack and Robert getting off to a fresh start. One would hope that a film filled with such pathos—especially one based on real-life experience—would unearth observations about the way families deal with loss and how that loss can ultimately bring people closer. Instead, D’Arcy wastes a very personal story on a standard-issue romance. It’s heartbreaking for all the wrong reasons. [C-]
“Made in Italy” is available now in select theaters and VOD.