There are many different ways to deal with tragedy, and perhaps the best – according to the somewhat twisted and deeply flawed logic of “Welcome to the Rileys” is to leave your agoraphobic wife, travel to New Orleans, make arrangements to sell your business and spend your time attempting to steer an opportunistic teenage stripper onto a more virtuous path.
At least, that’s the plan of Doug Riley (James Gandolfini), an Indiana plumbing contractor still reeling from the death of his teenage daughter. Doug has tried other consolations: Thursday-night poker games; an affair with a friendly waitress. But the gulf between him and his wife Lois (Melissa Leo) has grown too wide to bridge, and Doug feels he has nothing to live for. Somewhere inside him, there’s still a spark; he recoils visibly upon seeing his name on the pre-paid gravestone at the plot Lois has picked out for them. “I’m not dead,” he tells her angrily, but he’s merely trying to reassure himself that there’s still time to reconstitute his life.
Then, during a dull convention trip to the Big Easy, he wanders into a strip club, where he just wants to be left alone (because that’s all strip-club patrons want, to be left in peace, T and A be damned). There he meets Mallory (Kristen Stewart), whose name is not really Mallory, and though she is sleazy and crude and dirty and just about unbearable in every way, he decides he’s going to take care of her.
If the idea of a young “Twilight” star’s grinding up against Gandolfini gives you the willies, relax. Doug is not a guy who accepts sexual freebies for his gallantry. “Welcome to the Rileys” is the sort of middling domestic drama that features characters who behave in such not-quite-human ways. If you think Doug’s furious and continued rejection of the stripper seems a bit unlikely, wait until you witness Lois’ mild reaction to discovering that her husband is apparently shacked up with a teenager who turns tricks to finance her eyeliner habit.
Of the characters, Lois is the most preposterous – which is too bad, as Leo is a terrific actress and was nominated for an Oscar in 2009 for her portrayal of a desperate mother in “Frozen River”. At least Mallory never loses her hard edges and doesn’t end up as that most dreadful of cliches, the Stripper with a Heart of Gold. Lois, on the other hand, swiftly overcomes years of being unable to leave her house to follow Doug south, and pretty soon she’s picking out matching bra-and-panty sets for a kid who’s clearly not going to keep them on for long.
The movie keeps you vaguely interested only because Gandolfini is never dull, though I would have welcomed his going all Tony Soprano on the ungrateful Mallory. “Welcome to the Rileys” sets out to be a study of grief and how to overcome it, but it rings too false to offer much hope – or entertainment.