Will Forte's Subtle Turns in 'Run & Jump'

As in Nebraska, in Run & Jump, Will Forte plays a subtle sort of straight man, while maintaining small notes of inner tension.

Run & Jump

Director: Steph Green
Cast: Maxine Peake, Will Forte, Edward MacLiam, Sharon Hogan
Rated: NR
Studio: IFC Films
Year: 2013
US date: 2014-01-24 (Limited release)

Before he made a surprising transition from broad comedy with the dramedy Nebraska, Will Forte played an even more serious role in an even smaller movie. Steph Green's Run & Jump was filmed prior to Alexander Payne's movie, but is only now seeing a limited theatrical release, due to the popularity of Payne's Oscar contender.

Here Forte plays Ted, an American doctor who travels to Ireland to observe Conor (Edward McLiam) as he recovers from a stroke. Conor's motor skills are decent and he doesn't immediately appear disabled, but his brain doesn't work quite the way it used to. These changes make him, in effect, a different person, with flashes of resemblance to the husband and father he was before: he returns to his woodworking, for example, but focuses on it to the detriment of his family; he's also newly fascinated by animals, and their lack of emotional complexity.

Ted's grant pays the family more for the study if he stays with them, so he gets to know wife Vanetia (Maxine Peake), son Lenny (Brendan Morris), and young daughter Noni (Ciara Gallagher). He also documents Conor's symptoms and progress on video. In its opening half-hour, Run & Jump inserts these camera-view shots into its already handheld and close-up-heavy aesthetic. Formally, it's a clever technique, if also overly fussy and disorienting to watch.

Eventually, the movie reduces the number of shots that cut off the tops of actors' heads. Just so, Ted feels closer to the family, he shares well balanced two-shots with both Conor and Vanetia. He forms a particular bond with Vanetia as she confronts the prospect of a radically altered marriage with a brave face. Refusing and resenting pity, she describes her changed circumstance as feeling "like someone wrapping a wet blanket around you when you're cold."

By the time Vanetia and Ted warm to each other, Run & Jump has set itself up so clearly that it runs into an odd pitfall: it feels predictable even as it tells an original story. While Conor has a hard time adjusting to family life, Ted may be getting too close to his subjects. For Vanetia, both men embody contradictions: Conor is familiar yet alien, while Ted is new yet comforting. In broad terms, the story is naturalistic, but scene by scene, it's a bit schematic.

In this context, Forte's casting makes sense. During his time on Saturday Night Live, he gravitated toward characters -- like the stiff politician Tim Calhoun or the gregarious sex offender Jeff Montgomery -- who tried hard to conform to their given situations, then couldn't help but reveal their inner freakishness. Even his signature MacGruber character, nominally a parody of the TV hero MacGyver, masks a litany of neuroses with his all-American bravado. In both Nebraska and Run & Jump, Forte plays a subtle sort of straight man, calm on his surface while maintaining small notes of inner tension. For all his apparent staidness, Ted also enlivens this movie, especially during brief sections where he must recede from the story, observing the family's internal dynamics.

Peake and MacLiam are good, too, in showier roles they shape with sensitivity. Green makes the interesting choice to keep some conflicts between Conor and Vanetia partially obscured, observed from a distance with muffled sound, or through bits of Ted's video footage after the fact, with some scenes accompanied by a distracting piano score. This suggests another layer of emotional effect, but Run & Jump doesn't, after all, show what may lie beneath all of that quiet and piano. In place of resolution or well-wrought ambiguity, it offers generically open-ended hopefulness, the suggestion of uplift. This leaves us with a gently melancholic showcase for Forte, and not much else.

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