Kristen Stewart’s stripper film, otherwise known as Welcome to the Rileys, is an underwritten bit of skeezy morosity disguised as a heartwarming family drama. The directorial debut of Jake Scott, son of Ridley, is set mostly in New Orleans and weighs on the viewer like a humid Louisiana day, languidly moving toward its inevitable conclusion with its few unexpected developments in all the wrong places.
The film’s biggest surprise is Melissa Leo, who’s proved herself a chameleon in recent projects and is practically unrecognizable here as an agoraphobic June Cleaver, all pearls, sweater sets, and perfectly waved blond hair. Wife of distant, philandering husband Doug (James Gandolfini), Lois Riley is always all dressed up but unable to leave her home, even to the end of her Indianapolis driveway to pick up the mail. A dead daughter certainly has something to do with it; Doug’s affair and the couple’s apparent lack of communication surely doesn’t help.
But the daughter isn’t the only ghost haunting this story. At the very beginning of the film, Doug’s lover dies unexpectedly of a heart attack. When he visits her grave as well as that of his little girl, he notices that Lois took the liberty of buying tombstones for the two of them as well. It’s all too much for him to take, so when his business takes him to the Big Easy, he decides not to come home for a while. His reason isn’t another affair but Mallory (Stewart), a dancer/prostitute who reminds him of his daughter and, in his mind, is silently begging for salvation. (Mallory’s also got a dead mother. This is one mournful bunch.) So he moves into her squalid apartment—strippers, apparently, can’t live anywhere decent, nor comb their hair nor fix their makeup—and tries to clean up both the place and his surrogate daughter’s life.
Scripter Ken Hixon frames New Orleans as a place where miracles happen. When Doug announces that he’s not coming back, Lois suddenly gets the guts to go after him, hyperventilating during the whole drive from Indiana until she gets to the busy French Quarter and is suddenly—and unbelievably—free of her phobia. Doug’s reaction to her surprise visit is rather suspect, as well. But maybe Mallory, with her attitude, overt sluttiness, bruises, and hair-flipping (this is Stewart, remember), is good for him, too!
To be fair, regardless of Stewart’s actorly tics, she’s terrific as the raw, damaged Mallory, never once calling to mind her superficially angsty Bella. Leo’s performance is marred only by her character’s jagged arc. Gandolfini fares the worst, putting on an odd, sorta-Louisiana accent that’s not always there, though Doug’s compulsion to help Mallory and his resulting satisfaction/anger (depending on how his mission is going) always feels realistic.
An invasive, precious score, mostly during Lois’s solo scenes to, one guesses, signify her craziness, grates along with the film’s slow pace. Just as Doug sees a good girl in Mallory, viewers can spy a decent, moving film here. But both need work.