The ads for Ben is Back, an addiction drama starring Julie Roberts and Lucas Hedges, filled me with rage for their reference to Roberts’ tour de force performance. This meaningless accolade meant Julia pulled out all her tricks, but those tricks still have the hangover of 90s stardom. Ben is Back is a messy kitchen sink of an addiction recovery narrative: reconciliation, regrets, really over the top acting. But it’s more of a cliche ridden Beautiful Boy Redux film; grabbing Chalamet’s Lady Bird “rival” and letting Julia Roberts drop every mom trick in the book.
Roberts is given a character partially helicopter mom, partially scatterbrained. Her role features inconsistency in the character’s behavior and the narrative urges constant dramatics in the awards-seeking family crisis film turned dog caper. There’s little relatability where she’s baffled one moment and ride-or-die the next. Dramatically supporting her son, she states, “Well, we’ll take it one asshole at a time,” living her Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side-realness. We know Julia has that real fire in her; she stole August: Osage County from under Meryl Streep’s sweet tea dripping theatricality. I think she forgot those lessons here. Lucas Hedges pulls it off occasionally, but Roberts lacks connection in the story; it’s more calculated than motherly. Hedges plays down the addict role; he has good soul bearing moment in a group therapy scene. He handles his repercussions with an overly familiar, prepared manner, but I’ll leave that to faults in the storytelling from Oscar nominee Peter Hedges (screenwriter, About a Boy).
The language is too exact; it drowns in choppy, overly specific diction that loses any pacing in the conversations. A drug test to prove Hedges honesty, Roberts assures, “Relax, I’m not going to be looking at your privates,” when facing his mother’s insistence on a open door. The moment grasps for humor and seriousness, but it lands in pandering and embarrassing to watch. The sentences are too long, and they are strongly, dramatically punctuated. It all feels too forced, like when Roberts conveniently confronts Hedges’ doctor who first prescribed the painkillers on their last minute shopping trip with, “I hope you die a horrible death. Merry Christmas.” I nearly shut off the movie.
Compellingly done addiction storylines, especially in the modern era, are a difficult presentation. When it is more an occasion to list misery than a narrative of descent or recovery, all too important in the midst of an opioid crisis, it is lost to me. Stop writing the tour de forces of the cinematic world and find the human lost behind the opioid haze.