In 1989 New York (or, well, Pittsburgh standing in, unconvincingly, for New York), Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jake Davis (Russell Crowe: The Water Diviner, Noah) and his young daughter (Kylie Rogers) stumble through their grief over losing his wife, her mother in a car accident. The crash has left Jake with a combination of manic depression, palsy, and seizures brought on, apparently, by guilt (he was driving and distracted) and brain injury. It’s rather implausible and hugely melodramatic, which is all this pitiable excuse for a movie is concerned with: milking ham-fisted histrionics from high soap opera.
The contrived opening has little Katie going to live with her aunt Elisabeth (Diane Kruger: The Host, A Perfect Plan) and uncle William (Bruce Greenwood: Truth, Good Kill) while Jake retreats to a mental hospital, where seven long months of treatment (and, presumably, of missing his beloved Katie) occurs in the space of a dissolve. The movie hasn’t quite gotten to awful yet, but this disregard for creating a sense of time and of complex changing relationships in a story that is all about lingering impacts of trauma hints at the dreadfulness to come. Occasionally, the film jumps ahead 25 years to adult Katie (Amanda Seyfried: Pan, Ted 2), now a social worker helping traumatized kids even though — irony! — she never quite healed herself from her childhood experience, which might have been compounded by the custody battle (also rather implausible and hugely melodramatic) over Katie that Elisabeth and William engage Jake in, except we don’t ever really know if young Katie is even aware this is happening. Whatever the reason, adult Katie has trouble forming relationships, which we’re supposed to understand is an issue now that she has met Cameron (Aaron Paul: Exodus: Gods and Kings, Need for Speed)… except his favorite book ever is the one that Jake wrote about Katie. Any woman would find that kind of creepy, and would wonder whether he’s in love with a semifictional character rather than a real person; the movie has no inkling that this could be a problem.
It’s tough to see how this script, from first-timer Brad Desch, made 2012’s Black List of great unproduced screenplays, though the finished film is entirely in keeping with the oeuvre of Gabriele Muccino (previous works: the terrible Playing for Keeps and the morally execrable Seven Pounds). It’s chock full of undeveloped characters; wastes great talents also including Octavia Spencer, Janet McTeer, Jane Fonda, and Quvenzhané Wallis; and can manage only to be clunky and lunkheaded about sensitive matters from mental illness to alcoholism to What Women Need From Men. We’re probably not supposed to be laughing at such things, but that’s the only emotional reaction Fathers & Daughters elicits.