Returning to the Venice Lido in the Orizzonti sidebar after her mildly gripping thriller Texas Killing Fields premièred here back in 2011, Ami Canaan Mann’s Jackie & Ryan (2014) is a fleetingly entertaining romantic drama set in the world of street music. Former Prince Caspian Ben Barnes plays Ryan, a postmodern train-hopping troubadour, whose Athena poster boy looks and guitar plucking skills intrigue ex-pop country singer Jackie (rom-com regular Katherine Heigl). She first sees him busking with a buddy on the street and asks if he ever plays his own material. He shrugs her off, but later when Jackie is lightly knocked down by a car while texting, Ryan escorts her back to her mother’s house in the Utah wastes.
The car accident Jackie is involved in is symptomatic of the rest of the film’s almost-drama. No one actually has any real problems, but Mann appears insistent that these are genuine characters struggling with adversity. Heigl’s Jackie, for instance, was apparently a famous pop singer but now is starting a difficult divorce process with her “asshole” husband. There’s a danger that he might take her beloved daughter Lia (Emily Alyn Lind) from her, but any sympathy we might have for Jackie’s dilemma quickly dissipates when it turns out that despite her apparent poverty – she goes to a pawn shop with her jewellery at one point – she actually owns a massive condo in New York City. This fact makes a nonsense of Jackie & Ryan’s recession-era credentials, lamenting as it does about how the country “is having it hard”.
This may well be the case, but Jackie and Ryan are both to differing degrees tourists. Ryan’s struggles are similarly ho-hum. He’d like a new guitar and he feels shy about playing a new song he’s writing. To drum up some much needed sentiment, Mann invents an elderly mentor Cowboy who we never see, solely for the purpose of strategically killing him later on to give something for the rest of the characters to emote on. And yet there’s something glossily attractive about the whole thing. Mann has a nice sense of place, with the frosty Utah landscapes and the rail yards and roadways of America given a nice Indy feel romanticism, and the music is pleasant enough without ever overly taxing the memory banks.
The musical subtext of the film is riven with clichés but, like the covers that Ryan plays, they’re well-enough executed even if it’s quickly clear that Heigl isn’t as much a singing discovery as the film seems to think she is. Her one show-piece song is a duet with her daughter, who does her best to back up her mother’s lame baritone. When Ryan gets his big chance in the recording studio there’s an MTV Unplugged meets The Real World feel to proceedings, but he’s a likable presence and it feels unfair after all those miles to hit him too hard. Despite its manifold flaws, Jackie & Ryan is still oddly watchable, even if its presence in a sidebar designed to promote innovation feels somewhat off-key.
The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.