“Ashby” aims to be the “Harold and Maude” of bromances. It stars Mickey Rourke, Nat Wolff and Emma Roberts. In it, Ed (Wolff) is the new kid in school. His mom’s aloof and his relationship with his dad is solely via webcam. Aside from a mild flirtation with his hipster-meets-librarian classmate, Eloise (Roberts), Ed’s pretty isolated, until, he’s assigned to meet “an old person” and write about it.
Enter, Ashby (Rourke), who conveniently lives next door. He’s a former CIA agent, he’s dying and he’s not interested in being interviewed. But he does need a driver.
So the pair begrudgingly converse as Ed traffics Ashby to the bar, to the cemetery, and so on. One afternoon, Ashby passes out, and as Ed explores his home, he comes across Ashby’s stash of passports, guns and his CIA credentials. Now, they really have something to talk about, and quickly, their relationship develops into more than chauffeur/chauffee/school project.
In one scene, Ashby notices Ed’s black eye. (It’s from a school bully.) Ed claims he’s a passivist, to which Ashby replies: “Beatings beget bruises and, trust me, more beatings.” Hearing Ed enable, minimize and misdirect, Ashby interrupts with: “Is one of your goals to bullshit yourself into submission?”
In earlier scenes, Ed disregards his emotions. Catching his mom in a compromising position with a co-worker, having his father cancel a visit last minute, Ed buries disappointment and disgust. But here, Ed lets himself be rattled — angry even.
At Ashby’s insistence, they pull over. “If you’re gonna be a passivist and an irritating personality type,” Ashby says, “you can at least learn how to take a punch.” Ashby draws Ed out of complacency with some mild hits. When Ed hits back, when he finally defends himself, Ashby is leveled. And both characters are unlocked from some emotional catatonia.
In the next scene, they’re sitting on a deck, sharing a carton of milk, and “Ashby” takes off into a story of redemption and coming-of-age.
Screenwriter/director Tony McNamara inserts comedic reprieves in Ed’s oblivious and lonely mother June (Sarah Silverman). In one scene, June confronts Ashby with: “You’re not like an asshole who’s touching my son’s privates, are you?” Her execution and tone of voice carry comedic weight from her comedy background. Bits like this are peppered throughout this film, and McNamara understands that any other woman in this role would make “Ashby” more of a tragedy than a comedy.
This is McNamara’s second feature-length film. And while he understands juxtaposition, foreshadowing, dialogue, all the good stuff, this loses momentum in Ashby’s revenge-redemption storyline. Another diluting factor: there’s almost too much subtext on history, masculinity, coming-of-age, death, redemption.
But these aren’t deal breakers. McNamara presents thoughtful and compact storytelling. He’s a filmmaker to watch. And he cast magnetic leading actors.
Rourke’s physique is an enigma — revealing and mesmerizing — perfect for the role of an ailing assassin. His eyes are piercing and aching with emotion — uncomfortably telling of this actor’s depth. And Wolff matches Rourke’s force with gumption.
He exhibits Ed’s metamorphosis with a wide range of flair and vulnerability. There are a few moments — during a locker-room pep talk or a dashboard jam session — that feel less natural and too self-aware, but these are minor criticisms. In this role, Wolff vacillates between awkward, fear-crippled and confident, and it’s so poignant, it’s almost painful. This guy’s someone to watch.
Roberts as Eloise is beautiful and quirkily clad. She’s cute on the sidelines — literally — but “Ashby” isn’t about her or romance in general. It’s about facing fear in life and in death, and it enlists dignity for both crossroads. “Ashby” is like “Harold and Maude” simply in that it shows a life-changing connection isn’t restricted by age.
It’s worth watching.
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Nat Wolff, Emma Roberts, Sarah Silverman
Screenwriter/director: Tony McNamara
Rating: R for language, some sexual material and violence
Available: Amazon Video, iTunes, Google Play, Netflix Instant, VUDU