Synopsis: After serving twelve years for armed robbery, Jimmy gets an early parole. Upon his release from prison, he vows to give Annie, his childhood love, now dying from cancer, the best year of her life. The best last year of her life. If only life were that simple.
Stars: Jason Sudeikis, Evangeline Lilly, Mike Colter, Shea Whigham
Director: Aharon Keshales
Running Length: 120 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: I don’t know about you, but it’s a little funny to me that the same weekend Jason Sudeikis closes out his second season playing the Emmy-winning title role of his multiple award lauded serio-comedy Ted Lasso, he’s also premiering a hard-nosed crime drama that at one point sees someone sliced in half. That he pulls both off convincingly is a sure sign that Sudeikis is another SNL alum that was always meant for something more. Up until now, Sudeikis has mostly thrived in comedic films but South of Heaven represents a gear shift that’s likely to feel jarring for many of his fans that have come to expect a lighthearted Sudeikis or, more recently, the Ted Lasso-y Sudeikis with a perennial good-nature we secretly all wish we could emulate more of.
The sunniness Sudeikis brings to that show on Apple TV+ is mostly cloudy in South of Heaven. Right from the start when we see Jimmy Ray (Sudeikis, We’re the Millers) in front of a parole board being up front and honest that he should be released so he can spend as much time as he can with his terminally ill fiancé. Yes, he committed a crime but it was a first offense and after 12 years, has his time been served? He’s a middle-aged white guy so…of course he’s let out. Waiting for him is Annie (Evangeline Lilly, Ant-Man and the Wasp) and with her pixie cut and glowing aura, she looks like she’s already practicing for her guardian angel gig she’s most certainly getting hired for. The reunion between the two is sweet, bittersweet, and then ultimately tender as both realize how quickly they have to re-learn their old routines to maximize the time they have left with one another.
Not long after Jimmy Ray’s return, his rat-like parole officer (Shea Whigham, The Quarry, always on call when a weasely character is needed) makes sure Jimmy Ray knows that he’s under his thumb and even prompts him to get involved with under the table business on his behalf or risk being sent back to prison on trumped up charges he creates. Unwilling to part from Annie again, Jimmy Ray agrees to retrieve a package for the parole officer and it’s on his way back that something happens which shifts the film from being one story to a different one in a similar vein. It’s one of several adjustments director and co-screenwriter Aharon Keshales makes for the next 75 minutes which will keep the audiences on their toes, wondering where all of these tone shifts are going to lead. Will they add up to beautiful music or is just all banging on a keyboard?
Working with fellow screenwriters Kai Mark and Navot Papushado, Keshales manages to make South of Heaven into that rare bird that refuses to stay in one place for too long but doesn’t feel too flighty at the same time. The movie has about 5 endings as it nears its conclusion (and that was one too many for me) and with each progression to a new level the stakes are raised quite convincingly and, more importantly, with an entertainment value that works for nearly everyone involved. The only person it isn’t completely successful with is its leading man.
I’m not sure if it was Sudeikis now being so tied to the Ted Lasso of it all but it took a long time for me to lock into what he was doing here and go with it. There was a dramatic side to him that he doesn’t wear totally convincingly in, oh, 78% of the movie and it’s only working with Lilly in some of the final scenes and in a climactic sequence near the end that it feels like the talented actor is working in a zone. Yet you see the actor trying new things and new ideas as he journeys to get to that zone and you can’t fault someone that’s actively trying to make something work in what had to be a tight shooting schedule. He’s got great support with, as mentioned, Lilly who is a real breath of fresh air here and Mike Colter (Girls Trip) as a soft-spoken crime boss that doesn’t like to have to ask for things twice. I also got a kick out of seeing former C-movie action star Michael Paré as a mostly silent hired muscle for Colter, who isn’t too shabby in the bicep category himself.
If there’s one thing that might be problematic for viewers it’s that Keshales doesn’t seem to be able to settle on the mood of the film, shuffling the deck at random. This tends to lessen the weight of heavier scenes and makes you wonder whether dialogue that is supposed to be dramatic is coming off just a tad phony. In more than one scene, an actor is drawing from a deep well to convey emotion but the sincerity was so over emphasized that the effect is insincere. Put all of these little moments in a line and it would result in an unconvincing watch but when they are peppered within the fabric of a film you can forgive it a little easier as a quirk the filmmaker is working through.
At this point, you have to be wondering what I’m even thinking about the film, right? It sounds like I’m down on it but I was way more into South of Heaven than I originally thought I would be, even when it overstays its welcome ambling toward one of its many endings. For all its emotional ups and downs, I didn’t have a clear idea of where it was headed and that’s a refreshing feeling after sitting through countless tales that are sunk by predictability. When it does get to its ending, it’s not what I expected (and probably not what I wanted) but I appreciated one final rug pull from a director that wasn’t afraid up until that point of shaking things up to keep the action interesting.