It's high time Zooey Deschanel got the lead in a major movie. She's got a penetrating gaze that has a blank quality adaptable to a remarkably wide range of roles. (Rent Elf, All the Real Girls, and Almost Famous to get a sense of this, and to stop asking, "Zooey who?") The movies have plenty of pretty girls, but her beauty has an interesting strangeness, her mouth crimped in irony, her mind heeding a different, distant drummer who gives her acting beats an intriguing syncopation.
And since she's named after J.D. Salinger's most esoteric character, what could be more appropriate than playwright Adam Rapp's film about a Salinger-inspired cult novelist and recluse (Ed Harris), whose edge-dwelling cokehead actress daughter (Deschanel) comes home from New York's mean streets to demand his elusive attention? Harris does OK as the stringy-haired old nutball drunk, who lives and writes his mysteriously decades-delayed novel in his decrepit garage. He's protected from intrusive fans by his surrogate family, a British grad student (Amelia Warner) and a morbidly shy former Christian rock musician (Will Ferrell), who plays golf with him indoors, punching many holes in walls.
There's a hole in everybody's heart in this house, yet the weirdos therein manage to tend one another's wounds. Deschanel's character is the meanest, though she's had reason: Her dad and vanished mom were both narcissistic authors who scarcely glanced up from their manuscripts during her whole childhood. Now she's broke and some editor is offering a hundred grand for her dad's letters. Why shouldn't she cash in? And who are these kids living in her house?
We find out in a way that's too straightforward, but also meandering and pokey in a way that would work better on a stage. It's a character- and dialogue-based film, original and distinct in literary voice, but Rapp is a dramatic slacker not much interested in plot or motive. The movie starts out strong and steadily peters out. For a noted novelist and playwright (his Finer Noble Gases was a 2004 Seattle critical hit), Rapp has zilch to say about writers or writing.
Winter is well worth seeing for Deschanel's sharp, touching performance, a breakthrough, and Ferrell's affecting variation on his standard big goofy kid persona. He's funny, but not remotely played for laughs. When he croons the Eagles' "I Can't Tell You Why" in the local bar, it's the only karaoke-style scene in recent memory that has a dramatic reason to be: It tells you why he feels the way he does.