The good news about "After Words" is that it offers Marcia Gay Harden a rare film lead. The bad news: Harden's role in this groan-worthy dramedy is so dreary and ill-conceived that even her formidable talents can't bring it to life.
Harden plays Jane, a frumpy, painfully awkward introvert with an unwieldy hairdo and clunky glasses — on a chain, no less — who gets laid off as a Los Angeles librarian. Jane is unfazed, however, as the deeply depressed book lover intends to commit suicide anyway, so, y'know, good timing. In addition, she's planned a last-hurrah trip to Costa Rica, apparently to die somewhere beautiful and remote.
Unlike viewers — specifically, anyone who's seen "Shirley Valentine" — little could Jane predict what's in store for her upon arriving in the tropical paradise. Her surprise comes in the form of the younger Juan (Óscar Jaenada), a cute, kind, hyper-ebullient tour guide who takes Jane on a whirlwind week of sightseeing. In the process, he cracks her seemingly impenetrable shell. Suffice to say, one doobie and first-timer Jane's a goner.
If only we learned how Jane wound up so alone, sad and dysfunctional, the story might have made more sense. But as written by Joel Silverman, her character is built on tics and trepidation instead of flesh and blood.
Single dad Juan moonlights as a gigolo to pay for private school for his precocious young daughter (Jenna Ortega, adorable), but that's a dubious wrinkle that's handled far too glibly and gets lost in the narrative shuffle.
The film, directed by Juan Feldman, who shares story credit with Silverman, certainly works as an eye-popping travelogue. But as an emotionally resonant look at a middle-aged woman's reawakening, it's an underwhelming trip.
"After Words." No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle's Royal, Wes Los Angeles. Also on VOD.