Year by the Sea only feels like a decade. Karen Allen takes the lead in the big-screen adaptation of Joan Anderson’s best-selling memoir, and while the tagline promises, “It’s never too late to reclaim your life,” there is unfortunately no refund on the two hours lost watching it.
Year is the kind of goopy, by-the-numbers women’s picture that gives melodramas a bad name and the Hallmark Channel more than enough programming to fill the lonely hours for desperate housewives across America. How this thing postponed its stay on Redbox long enough to see the theatrical light of day is a question for the ages.
We begin — badly — with nostalgia. If budgetary restraints or a lack of cinematic savvy prohibit a filmmaker from doing it right, then don’t bother doing it at all. Better to use pictures with cut out heads as an indication of past happiness than the seizure-inducing home-movie recreations that open the picture.
Context is crucial, and as gratifying as it was seeing Karen Allen in a comeback role, this is the wrong framework for her radiance — like seeing the Mona Lisa encased in a plexiglass holder. Allen was once capable of going head-to-head with the boys at Animal House’s Delta Chi fraternity, and she will forever stand as one of the primary reasons Starman remains John Carpenter’s most mature work. For this career rebound, she’s asked to trudge neck-deep in a sea of sentimental hogwash.
With her oldest son about to be married and her baby boy going off to college, mom prepares what could be her two lads’ last home-cooked meal for some time. Then a guest at the wedding reception lets it slip to Joan that her hubby just listed their home on the market. With his company shutting down their New York office, Robin (Michael Cristofer) has no choice but to accept a job at the Wichita branch.
Our introduction to Robin is about as subtle as flashing a cautionary “Warning: Bastard Ahead” disclaimer across the bottom of the screen. On the tennis court, a solid return volley connects with his oldest son’s groin, painfully bringing the boy to his knees and plastering a sadistic smile across the old man’s kisser. If he treats his kids this way, gosh only knows the level of negligence Joan has had to endure!
(Stop the music! Isn’t this the same Michael Cristofer who directed Angelina Jolie in her two finest outings? In lesser hands, the HBO-produced Gia would have been little more than an anti-drug public service announcement biopic starring Angie as doomed supermodel Gia Carangi. Original Sin, Cristofer’s adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s 19th-century New Orleans’ noir Waltz into Darkness, provided Jolie with the tailor-made role of a sinisterly delectable con artist. It remains the actress’s finest hour. Why didn’t he direct this movie instead of Alexander Janko, an orchestrator making his debut as a writer and director?)
Hoping to resume her career as a writer, a defiant Joan thinks the time is right for a brief separation. A postcard advertising a cottage by the sea in Cape Cod conveniently arrives in that day’s mail, and it’s just the motivator that she and the plot needed. Instead of dutifully tailing Robin to Kansas, Joan follows her newly developed fondness for Massachusetts sand dunes and salty air.
A good (bad?) third of the movie qualifies as travelogue — of the long, drawn-out variety. For three minutes, we watch as Joan aimlessly paddles a dinghy to the cottage. This isn’t Hitchcock’s Melanie Daniels fascinatingly piloting a motor boat with three love birds to Rod Taylor. A simple cut from ship to shore would have done the trick.
The next day brings introductions to the supporting characters, any one of whom deserves a TV movie of their own. There’s Erikson (Celia Imrie), whose eccentric exterior masks a terrified soul that’s gently dying along with her Alzheimer’s-affected husband. And a waitress (Monique Curnen) forced to do something about the violent drunk (Tyler Haines) she married acts as a reminder to audiences that spousal abuse is bad. (In all fairness, Joan saves the day when out of nowhere she introduces a roasting pan to the back of the brute’s head, and Janko directs the scene with the type of honest jolt that the rest of the picture sorely lacks.)
Allen’s energy alone isn’t enough to set this soap opera bubbling, so don’t expect Joan’s flirtation with a local fish-peddler (Yannick Bisson) to go anywhere except as predicted. With a conclusion as forced and phony as the one that caps this dreadful Year, nurses should be stationed at exit doors administering insulin shots. Wait for this one to play cable and then cancel your subscription.