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Winter Passing ***

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

Dirty White Boy: Ferrell delivers an understated performance in Adam Rapp's Winter Passing.

(Courtesy of SFStation.com)

Starring: Ed Harris, Zooey Deschanel, Daniel Larson, Will Ferrell, Deidre O'Connell, Rachel Dratch. Rated R.

Having earned acclaim as both an award-winning playwright (Nocturne) and novelist (The Buffalo Tree), Adam Rapp has made the leap to the big screen, writing and directing the bittersweet family drama Winter Passing. If it’s a bit wordy, driven more by richly constructed dialogue than action, that should come as little surprise. Winter Passing feels as if it belongs on a stage, and perhaps it does.

It is the story of Reese Holden (Zooey Deschanel), an aspiring New York actress who moonlights as a bartender, sleeps around and indulges a troublesome coke habit. She is depressed and increasingly desperate, so when a book editor offers her $100,000 to retrieve her parents’ love letters, she hops on the first bus to back to her Michigan home. Once there, she is surprised to discover her estranged father, Don (Ed Harris), living in a tiny shack behind the family house, which is now inhabited by a pair of quirky guests.

Don was a legendary novelist in the ’60s, but he has since retired to the life of a famously reclusive alcoholic. (The name Holden suggests in no uncertain terms that his character is based on another famously reclusive author, J.D. Salinger.) Meanwhile, Reese’s mother is dead, seemingly replaced by Shelly (Amelia Warner), one of Don’s former writing students, and Corbit (Will Ferrell), a goofy Christian rocker who teaches Don the finer points of indoor golf and shields him from fans, who still come around to catch a glimpse of their hero. It is an odd lot, to be sure, and it seems inevitable that Reese will take exception to this crude imitation of a family. She doesn’t.

Instead, Reese forms an unlikely bond with Don’s caretakers and sheds some of her own pent-up bitterness in the process. She has long been at odds with her father, but her visit seems to rescue him, at least temporarily, from the throes of whiskey-soaked madness. And wouldn’t you know, those sought-after letters help her gain a new appreciation for him, eccentricities and all.

Because of its wacky cast of characters and the presence of Ferrell, who can turn even the straightest observation into a gut-busting punch-line, one might expect Winter Passing to be a comedy. It is not. There is sly, subtle humor sprinkled throughout, but this is a character-driven drama that works despite its predictably upbeat outcome. Deschanel delivers an appropriately caustic performance as Reese, the sullen youth whose every syllable drips with contempt. And Harris, who shined as a tortured artist in Pollock, maintains his reputation as one of America’s finest living actors.

The real revelation is Ferrell. He strikes just the right note as Corbit, an overgrown child so pathologically shy that he can’t play guitar and sing at the same time in public. (This sparks a minor meltdown when he attends an open mike night at the local bar.) For a gifted comedian like Ferrell, the temptation to ham it up must have been great, but he refrains from playing a clownish caricature. Showing unusual self-restraint, he portrays Corbit as a lonely, idiosyncratic misfit who suffers quietly alongside every other character on the screen.

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