Movie Review: Wild Mountain Thyme (2020)

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While intellectually, I know that I saw several films in the theater before this one, for whatever reason, the movie-going memory that's seared into my brain as the first live-action feature that I ever saw is from 1987.

Following a busy morning running errands, as three generations of Italian-American women – a fact that would only become significant with time and understanding – I accompanied my mother and grandmother to a matinee screening of “Moonstruck” when I was six-years-old. Although it didn't mean that much to me as a first grader and my love for the film would grow exponentially over the years, I have a vivid memory of not only the uproarious laughter that filled the theater but also the overwhelming interest and focus that seemed to reach a fever pitch whenever the instantly magnetic Nicolas Cage hit the screen.

Years later, I jokingly began to blame the film, which has since become one of my favorites, for my obsession with character actors like Cage, and of course, my unrivaled love of epic monologues, like the ones which were penned in the film by the Oscar, Tony, and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John Patrick Shanley. Shanley, who had already written the terrifically underrated film “Five Corners” would follow up the smash hit “Moonstruck” with decades of unpredictable work for both the stage and screen, including two directorial efforts with the cult comedy “Joe Versus the Volcano” in 1990 and 2008's controversial conversation starter “Doubt,” which he adapted from his play.

Shanley's third time at bat as a filmmaker arrives this week with “Wild Mountain Thyme,” which, like “Doubt,” first got its start on the New York stage. Described by Shanley as the most pleasurable experience that he'd ever had as a writer, “Outside Mullingar,” was inspired by his own family's Irish roots following a life-changing trip to his ancestral home in Ireland as an adult. 

A love story about two lonely, eccentric thirty-somethings living next door to one another in the Irish countryside, “Thyme” introduces us to the headstrong Rosemary Muldoon (a divine Emily Blunt) who has spent more than twenty years pining for her sweet yet shy neighbor Anthony Reilly (Jamie Dornan). Hoping that when his father Tony (Christopher Walken) leaves the family farm to him that he'll finally get the courage to propose so that they can start their life together, after Tony announces his intent to sell the farm to his wealthy American nephew Adam (Jon Hamm), decades worth of family drama and pent up romantic frustration come to a head.

On the surface, of course, “Wild Mountain Thyme” finds Shanley back in his “Moonstruck” sweet spot spinning multigenerational, slightly mythic yarns about love, family, and the way that both can throw a wrench into your best-made plans. Unfortunately, however, that's where the similarities between the two romances end, at least in terms of their overall quality. As awkwardly cumbersome as “Moonstruck” was smooth and free-flowing, although “Thyme” is filled with his trademark memorable speeches and pithy lines, there is something utterly laborious and exhausting about the way that it is all presented.

Opening with a fast-paced flashback meant to establish Rosemary's love for Anthony that doesn't get the gravitas or the screentime it needs to truly invest us in her plight, “Thyme” further steamrolls viewers by launching us into the middle of a debate with huge stakes for the characters before we clearly understand just who exactly everyone is and what's really going on. A film that seems to begin in the middle and then back up and change course altogether when suddenly Jon Hamm arrives like a cool breeze from what feels like an entirely different movie, although “The Prince of Tides” and “Closer” cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt's lush photography of west Ireland's County Mayo is warm and inviting, there isn't a lot about “Thyme” that's worth recommending. 

Featuring another epic “Moonstruck” level moment of musical theater derived intertextuality as not the glorious opera “La Boheme” this time but the classical ballet “Swan Lake” becomes the touchstone for our feisty heroine, Emily Blunt is clearly up to the task of bringing one of Shanley's great, complicated, middle-aged women looking for love to life. And indeed, Blunt is “Thyme”'s great shining light to the point that scenes not featuring the actress tend to drag. Shockingly, we feel this most when the usually reliable Christopher Walken and Jamie Dornan try to generate our interest in a contentious but loving father-son dynamic that plays as though the film's most important scenes necessary to understanding their relationship have been left on the cutting room floor.

It's a major disappointment given the level of the talent involved and how much I was rooting for the film, especially since we have a noted deficit in modern filmmaking when it comes to sophisticated romcoms for adults. And while it works as a passably average travelogue of Ireland, complete with a few musical moments featuring Emily Blunt, as a film in its own right (and even without my cherished memory of “Moonstruck”) when compared to the rest of Shanley's oeuvre, “Wild Mountain Thyme” is wild to a fault but nowhere near as bright.

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