YEAR: 2015

ROLE:  Willie Grogan



Plot Summary

Based on the book, "The Human Comedy", written by William Saroyan, the film is a coming-of-age story. In a world thatís seemingly filled with war and never ending death, 14-year-old Homer Macauley is trying to understand the world, his place in it, and why war has to exist. Between becoming a man and taking over as the central figure in his household after his fatherís death, Homer becomes a telegram messenger for Tom Spangler and Mr. Gorgan. Eldest brother Marcus is off fighting in World War II and Homer is left behind in the town of Ithaca. Trying to make sense of all the telegrams he delivers sending news of dead sons and husbands, he ponders questions about war.

Meg RYAN.............Mrs. Macauley
Hamish LINKLATER..............Tom
Alex NEUSTAEDTER........Homer
Jack QUAID.......Marcus Macauley
Tom HANKS............Mr. Macauley

Production Notes:

Filming took place near Richmond, VA for 23 days in July 2014. 

Film Stills of Sam Shepard
Publicity Stills

Alistair Harkness, The Scotsman:
Ryan has no real sense of how to craft a story from behind the camera. She also switches point-of-view and introduces dream sequences and hallucinatory images at odd moments. The stylistic mishmash is jarring to say the least. Even the performances Ė usually a strong point for actors-turned-directors Ė are leaden, with only Sam Shepardís turn as the townís drunken chief telegraph operator coming close to conveying the gravitas this wannabe prestige picture is desperately striving to achieve.

Duane Byrge, The Hollywood Reporter:
Filmed previously as The Human Comedy in 1943, this rebirth is almost a casebook study of how not to transpose "literature" to film. A heartfelt yet sodden directorial debut by Meg Ryan, "Ithaca" is wordy and static. Saroyan's novel was a sharp smear on the fragility of life in a world of wild extremes and shifting circumstances. Unfortunately, the film's drama is enervated by incessant voiceover, background radio, newsreels, out-loud letter readings and other noise...

While wordy, Ithaca is nearly bereft of everyday dialogue: Erik Jendresen's script, focusing on the philosophical queries, crushes the human intrigue. Amid these drones, nothing feels or sounds natural, which is particularly egregious since Saroyan's book imparted a real sense of place.

One of the few moments the film actually entertains comes when the elderly alcoholic telegrapher imparts sage, crusty wisdom to eager-beaver Homer. On this plus side, not only have the filmmakers used the historical back-road sites of Virginia for their filming, they have picked up the formidable talents of local-yokel Sam Shepard. Costumed in Harold Lloyd-type period glasses and swiveling around in his telegrapher's chair, Shepard infuses the proceedings with some comic relief and perspective. His bits stand out: Shepard's soft, creaky voice, mixed with intermittent high-pitched punctuation, give you the feeling that this guy could do a helluva W.C. Fields. Unfortunately, those kinds of attention drifts are unintended but necessary to endure the rest of what's onscreen...

Visually, the film is too tightly wound: Ryan's character positioning is glaringly stagey, while the film's overall look is drab. Its production and costume palette consists of dull, earth tones, which are further dulled by cinematographer Andrew Dunn's murky lensing. On the near-plus side, John Mellencamp's string-swept score grates and swirls, both ascendant and funereal, nicely amplifying the characters' tribulations.

The Examiner:
Moving at the speed of growing grass, not much happens in "Ithaca", and thus not much happens to Homer. And yet his perspective on life in his hometown shifts considerably darker, becoming more disillusioned as time goes on. Some of it can be attributed to the letters from his brother, and the growing sense that he may die for some unknowable cause. The others are the death notices from the military that he's forced to deliver in his new job, exacerbated by Homer's laughable inability to simply deliver the messages and leave. Instead, he's brought inside to literally read the letters aloud to one lady, while in another instance he's delivering the bad news during a birthday party.

Another problem is the combination of Erik Jendressen's on-the-nose screenplay, adapted from William Saroyan's novel "The Human Comedy", and Ryan's equally obvious direction. Between the two of them there's a tug of war between Homer's stilted dialogue ("I'll spit at the world if he dies!") and overdone expressions of emotion, such as when he literally spits at the world soon after. Ryan can't do anything about the script, but learning to get the best out of her actors will come with more experience. Pros like Shepard and Linklater handle themselves well, especially Shepard as the wizened old drunkard who takes on a mentorship role for Homer at a time when he desperately needs it.

Daniel S. Levine, The Celebrity Cafe:
The filmís production design is also rather drab and looks like an attempt to make moving Norman Rockwell paintings. While the period details are there, the film still looks too quickly thrown together. The one war scene looks like it was shot in front of a black screen and the smoke was supposed to cover it up. Ryan said during a post-screening Q&A that the film was shot in just 23 days (the war scene was shot in two hours!) and it sure looks like it. Ryan might have an ability to direct and you canít fault her for trying to bring a story she was passionate about to the big screen. But "Ithaca" is so bland and so unfocused that it fails to give any evidence that Ryan found a new voice as a director.

Todd Jorgenson, D Magazine
While Neustaedter makes Homerís wide-eyed charisma endearing and Shepard lends his scenes a certain level of gravitas, the didactic narration aggressively pushes its pearls of wisdom beyond all credibility. The source material, written in the 1940s, drew inspiration from Homerís Odyssey and was more relevant to its time. This muddled adaptation too often feels like itís moving in slow motion and suggests the material might have worked best as a short, despite its star power.

Joe Leydon, Variety:
Ithaca" unfolds at a steady pace that, truth to tell, makes the movie seem longer than it is. Worse, screen time is not fairly apportioned ó some interesting characters arenít around nearly often enough, while others either overstay their welcome, or arenít welcome at all. Chief among the latter: Homerís dead father, who periodically appears as a fond memory, or maybe a ghost, to Homerís mom. It doesnít help at all that this apparition is played, almost entirely without dialogue, by Tom Hanks, whose stunt casting distractingly recalls his more entertaining screen pairings with Ryan in "Youíve Got Mail" and "Sleepless in Seattle."  On the other hand, Sam Shepard is so wonderfully engaging as the crusty Willie Grogan, an avuncular alcoholic who spouts wisdom while sporting Harold Lloyd-type glasses, you canít help thinking that, in almost any other context, his performance might generate award-season consideration.

Matthew Anderson, CineVue:
Foremost in "Ithaca's" problems is a woeful script. Never wont to unduly criticize a fellow writer, it's nevertheless very difficult to find any positive comment to make about the dialogue offered to the big hitters on the bill here. In letters received from Marcus, the phrase 'I wish there was no war' sums up the very obvious anti-conflict sentiment though none of his suffering is shown. Through other eye-rollingly bad moments we finally hit rock bottom with 'There will always be pain in this world.' Looks of indignation on the faces of a cast loathe to enunciate such drivel beg the question as to how the project proceeded without going back to the drawing board. Despite having only a marginal role herself, in trying so hard to be thought-provoking and profound, Ryan forgets to develop character past the planning stages, resulting in no emotional involvement at all.

Allan Brown, Movie Review World:
Despite its whimsical nature, stilted dialogue and continual bombardment of oversentimentality, there are some notable performances throughout. Willie (Sam Shepard) and Tom (Hamish Linkletater) both shine as Homer's new bosses at the local telegraph post. Their presence in the film adds a much needed injection of life and humor into the proceedings... Despite the actors being plagued with stiff dialogue exchanges from a screenplay that's almost impenetrable, Neustaedter and the whole cast salvage what they can from it, and at times, even manage to evoke a spark of emotion, in this overwise drab and confused drama.

Keith Watson, Slant Magazine:
The film is confused in conception, dreary in execution, and completely lacking in forward momentum. Scenes drag on with no sense of purpose, while the actors generally seem lost. The overall effect is like watching an early rehearsal for a play, when the rhythms of a scene haven't yet been established and the actors are still finding their characters.

Nick Shager, Village Voice:
Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks reunite for the first time since 1998's "You've Got Mail" in "Ithaca" ó the former's directing debut ó but they're merely stick-figure peripheral players in this egregiously clunky and phony coming-of-age story based on William Saroyan's 1943 novel "The Human Comedy"... There's no rhythm to any single scene in this hokey tale, nor to the way in which sequences have been put together ó the action is hopelessly ungainly... Set to a countrified score by John Mellencamp that further douses everything in down-home treacle, it's the rare film to miss its every mark.

Roger Moore, Movie Nation
Sentimental and slow, this "Life on the Homefront" melodrama lacks the pathos and punch of its predecessor... Young Neustaedter is properly sensitive, but dull in a part that seems dulled down by the intervening decades. Mickey Rooney played the kid in 1943, and gave him more of that antic spark of life that the world has to beat out of him. Ryan so underplays the ongoing grief that her character never once rises to "touching," something sheís been famous for achieving all through her career. In the rest of the cast, only Shepard stands out, a sauced sage who dodges the ďdeathĒ question from the kid with a weary wit.

Claudia Puig, The Wrap:
Meg RyanĎs choice of literary adaptation for her directorial debut may have been too ambitious: The overall effect, while earnest, is disjointed, dreary and oddly structured. Seemingly pointless scenes drag. The characters feel like cardboard cutouts, and the story is so deliberately paced as to feel tedious... Generally, scenes donít flow smoothly, and the pacing and rhythm suffers. It feels like key swaths have been edited out. The ending comes abruptly and awkwardly.

Joe Dziemianowicz, NY Daily News
Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks have made movie magic together ó but they canít cast such a spell with "Ithaca." ...Ryanís debut as a director is a sketchy and starchy film. When all is said and done, "Ithaca," like its messenger of death, just spins its wheels.

Kyle Smith, NY Post:
Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks are together again, sort of, in the disappointing World War II melodrama "Ithaca," a generous but sticky slice of American apple pie that marks Ryanís debut as a director... This movie is resolute about being as homey and obvious as it can possibly be. Somewhere, Norman Rockwell is thinking, "Sheesh, even I was edgier than this."

Devan Coggan, EW:
Most of the headlines around Meg Ryanís directorial debut, Ithaca, have focused on the fact that it reunites Ryan with her frequent costar Tom Hanks. But instead of giving the dynamic pair something to work with on screen, this adaptation of William Saroyanís novel The Human Comedy reduces Hanks to what is essentially a spectral cameo, playing Ryanís dead husband in a handful of mostly wordless scenes. In all, Hanksí casting feels like a missed opportunityómuch like the rest of Ithaca... Clunky dialogue and an overreliance on voiceover prevent "Ithaca" from ever becoming more than a predictable period piece.
"Ithaca", which screened tonight at the Middleburg Film Festival, isnít good enough to warrant a full review. It was shot too fast (23 days) for too little money in Virginia, and Iím afraid that Ryanís inexperience sealed its fate. Iím sorry but that feeling when a movie isnít cutting it is unmistakable. Ithaca lacks tension and at times clarity; it seems under-energized, even amateurish at times.

Steven Armour, Serving Cinema:
Scarcely seen on screen in the past decade, Meg Ryan has joined the ranks of A-list stars trying their hand at directing with her feature film debut Ithaca, a period drama set in 1942 in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor and Americaís subsequent decision to join the allies in the Second World War. Though dutiful in its treatment of the subject at hand, Ithaca is ultimately devoid of any authorial stamp or stylistic flare, proving a pedestrian first foray behind the camera by Ryan that may also be her last.
"Ithaca" is as predictable as it is emotionally hollow, destined to disappear in to the annals of forgotten directorial efforts from actors not up to the challenge... Sam Shepard is the only character of much note in the film, and even then the role isnít much of a stretch for an actor of his caliber.