If you’re going to watch a terminally ill man argue his right to be pulled off the machines and medications that have kept him alive for a decade while his family feuds around him, Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins in the hospital gown gasping for air is not a bad way to go. Jenkins is never not good, even when the material isn’t as strong as his acting.
Unfortunately, the treacly new drama “Lullaby” needs the respirator more than does Jenkins’ Robert Lowenstein, father of two spoiled brats (his assessment, not mine) played by Garrett Hedlund and Jessica Brown Findlay, longtime husband to their mother, Rachel (Anne Archer), and long tethered to the breathing machine.
Writer-director Andrew Levitas is topically on point in the film. With the ever-expanding number of adults able to stay alive longer because of medical advancements, quality-of-life issues are top of mind for many folks. It’s the way the filmmaker makes the point that is the problem.
The action unfolds over the 48 hours before Dr. Crier (Terrence Howard) is scheduled to pull the plug. Rachel has called the kids to Robert’s bedside so he can explain his decision, then let go of life. His other parting shot — the fortune he amassed in business is being bequeathed to others. He assures his stunned family members that they’ll be all right.
There were family divides long before any of Robert’s end-stage decisions. Jonathan (Hedlund) is trying and failing at the rock-star life in Los Angeles, a career choice his father has never approved of. Karen (Findlay) is a new attorney but not quite the hot shot she hoped to be. She’s opposed to her dad’s assisted suicide, has gotten an injunction, and he’s given her the right to argue her case before him.
It should make for a tense, tearful film as this dysfunctional family fights about Robert’s rights over his few remaining hours. Instead, everything unfolds at a glacial place, with so many emotional beats overplayed that the experience is more wearing than moving. It doesn’t help that “Lullaby” is conflicted about the heart of the matter, pulled between the idea of how Jonathan is living as well as the way Robert is dying. Instead of meshing, “Lullaby” too often feels like separate movies.
The film begins with a close-up of a cigarette burning in the dark. Then, Jonathan’s face comes into view as he takes furtive drags — inside an airplane bathroom. When the flight attendants threaten arrest, he pulls out the dying-father excuse. He’ll use it a few minutes later when he lights up in the hospital and Robert’s sassy nurse, Carrie (Jennifer Hudson), has security usher him out. So we know he’s trouble.
But like so many of “Lullaby’s” set-ups, neither scene works because it is too obvious and doesn’t ring true. That hollowness haunts the film.
The action is divided between Robert’s hospital room and all the places Jonathan’s emotions take him. Though theoretically the clock is ticking, Jonathan finds lots of time to see whether he can repair his relationship with former girlfriend Emily (Amy Adams). He also strikes up a friendship with a teenage cancer patient named Meredith (Jessica Barden). Both actresses are responsible for teaching Jonathan major life lessons — during long walks with Emily, during a makeshift hospital prom night with Meredith.
Hedlund always makes for interesting watching, and he’s become quite adept at channeling troubled artistic souls: a Beat Generation poet in 2012’s “On the Road,” a struggling singer in “Country Strong” (2010) opposite Gwyneth Paltrow. Like Jenkins, he does what he can with the emotional journey he’s been given here.
The cast is a strong one across the board, and each in their turn creates one or two good moments. It’s a pity the film falls apart faster than the lives it is following.
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MPAA rating: R for language and brief drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood