What happens when you send Melissa Leo and Tessa Thompson on a weekend road trip? The talent pairing alone seemed tantalizing enough to warrant further investigation, and I wish "Furlough" had supplied a better answer.
In this thin, meandering two-hander, Thompson plays a corrections officer assigned to escort Leo's prisoner on an authorized family visit, setting in motion a journey that will be beset by rude interruptions and bizarre digressions before ending, as it must, in sentimental tears.
All of which might well have yielded a fine movie, or at least an entertaining one, with better story sense, sharper jokes and a director willing to push even routine comic situations past their limits. What makes "Furlough" such a wan, dispiriting experience is how indecisive and fundamentally timid it seems. Rather than subtly braiding drama and comedy together, as real life often does, the movie oscillates jerkily between the two modes, as though hesitant to commit to either one.
Through it all, the two excellent leads meet the challenge with unfailing professionalism and determined smiles. Nicole Stevens (Thompson), a part-time guard at an upstate New York prison, spends every non-working minute caring for her hapless, needy mother (Whoopi Goldberg). But she's forced to leave her mom at home and take on a last-minute assignment, with the promise of a full-time position if she pulls it off: She will accompany a longtime inmate, Joan Anderson (Leo, cornrowed and bedraggled), to see her dying mother one last time. (Given the movie's buddy-comedy setup and day-and-a-half time frame, a better title might have been "36 Hrs.")
Thompson, whose star has been very much on the rise with supporting roles in lavish mega-productions like "Westworld" and "Thor: Ragnarok," deserves a much better lead showcase than this one. There are only so many exasperated expressions in any actor's tool kit, and Thompson has little choice but to fall back on them repeatedly, whether Stevens is trying to cut loose from her overbearing mother and scowling sister (La La Anthony), or to assert her authority over her increasingly troublesome prisoner.
What little comic tension "Furlough" generates stems from our uncertainty as to what Anderson might do, especially once Stevens unwisely agrees to uncuff her hands and legs. But Leo, who can go electrifyingly over-the-top in movies like "The Fighter," doesn't uncork the sort of full-throttle performance she could surely give if the script called for it. Anderson may be tough, but she's also a simpering, self-deprecating soul who's gotten a few points for good behavior over the years.
And with only six months left to serve, she isn't considered a major flight risk. Really, after years behind bars and a lifetime of regrets, she's just trying to enjoy her 36 hours on the outside, whether that means getting a quick but glorious makeover or picking up a hunky veterinarian (Edgar Ramirez) at a group for recovering sex addicts.
But the strained, awkward way in which that zany encounter plays out signals the lack of comic inspiration in either Barry Strugatz's screenplay or Laurie Collyer's direction. Collyer remains best known for the excellent "Sherrybaby" (2006), whose tale of an ex-con trying to reintegrate into society and do right by her child has some clear points of overlap with this very different mother-daughter dramedy. A lot of talented people have clearly been marshaled in service of "Furlough," but the material leaves even the best of them in chains.
Rated: R, for a brief sexual reference
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Monica Film Center, Santa Monica