A middling movie with a must-see performance at its core, “The Good House” does something interesting with the notion of the unreliable narrator. As the unfortunately named Hildy Good (blame novelist Ann Leary, not married filmmakers Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky for that decision), Sigourney Weaver brings deceptive self-confidence to the role of a small-town Realtor. We meet Hildy introducing a couple to the fictional New England fishing village of where the Good family has lived for so long, there’s talk of witches in their past. But Hildy can’t be trusted — not because her character is bad (she’s Good, get it?), but because she’s in denial.
“I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist … could in a year of sessions,” Hildy boasts, addressing the audience directly. In truth, she’s not talking to us so much as she is rationalizing things to herself. The slyly insightful way Forbes (“Infinitely Polar Bear”) and Wolodarsky (who spent years writing for animation) have constructed “The Good House,” watching Hildy throw down boss energy to clients and the camera is like being inside her head, where the first person she has to convince that she’s in control is herself. We buy it — for a time — but the characters don’t, and that mismatch is the crux of all that follows.
In truth, Hildy is a high-functioning alcoholic, and as soon as that’s made clear (about 10 minutes in, when her family stages an intervention), the movie morphs into something considerably more complex. From here on, “The Good House” is no longer about the former assistant (Kathryn Erbe) who’s been poaching Hildy’s clients, the younger woman (Morena Baccarin) she’s trying to protect from small-town prejudice, or the judgment-free garbage contractor/enabler (Kevin Kline) she’s been seeing on the sly. Those threads still matter, but the film re-centers to focus on Hildy’s journey to admitting her own addiction.
If this sounds like the stuff of Lifetime movies rather than a well-rounded theatrical entertainment, that’s because countless disease-of-the-week telepics have tackled the same subject before. But Forbes and Wolodarsky make Hildy’s substance-abuse behavior just one aspect of a portrait that’s rich enough to be contradictory at times. We mustn’t forget how good Weaver can be when she burrows into such roles — the way she elevated bona fide Lifetime movie “Prayers for Bobby” and indie “Ordinary People” knockoff “Imaginary People,” dimensionalizing characters that might have come off melodramatic in a lesser actor’s hands.
“The Good House” may not be a great movie, but Hildy Good is among Weaver’s best performances. What makes watching this career woman struggle to keep it together so compelling is the mismatch between how she perceives herself and what the rest of the world sees. Her drinking problem is only part of the picture. There’s also a generational aspect to the way she copes with life’s pressures. At one point, her eldest daughter Tess (Rebecca Henderson) mentions going to therapy, and Hildy’s reaction reveals that she sees this as a sign of weakness. But her method of self-medicating (with alcohol, obviously) is hardly an indicator of strength, and it’s telling just how destabilized Hildy is when the shrink (Rob Delaney) renting her spare apartment suggests the obvious: that she never really dealt with her mother’s suicide, but instead uses work and various other distractions to escape it.
The filmmakers remain closely aligned with Hildy’s subjective (unreliable) view of her life through the movie’s miscalculated — and blatantly manipulative — climax, when a local boy goes missing and we’re led to believe that she might be responsible. Hildy’s prone to blackouts (she uses the term “jackpots” to describe embarrassing public displays you can’t take back), and we’ve seen her making excuses for drunk driving more than once already. Could she be responsible? “The Good House” needs something big to get through to Hildy, to shake her free of the delusion that she’s got everything under control. This finale risks turning everything that’s come before into a cheap Nicholas Sparks-style soap. But it’s satisfying to watch how Hildy sees the good in others — like Kline’s scuzzily endearing character — throughout, and the ending reveals where her life was headed, if she’d kept going in the same direction.
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