‘Rileys’ Review: See Tony Soprano & Bella Swan Try to Stretch Themselves

“Welcome to the Rileys” is a small pleasure with deft performances by two actors trying something different

If you’re at the gym stretching is good for you. If you’re an actor … not so much.

While acting by its very definition implies constant change and range, the most successful of stars often find themselves confined to a straightjacket of sameness. Audiences want to see them playing the same role over and over again, with only the slightest variation from project to project. Clark Gable may be a pilot in one film and a gambler in the next, but both characters will swagger and have a mustache.

Consider the careers of more recent stars. At some point in every Julia Roberts movies, she’s going to break out that huge smile and hooting laugh. In the films where she didn’t — anyone remember the dour “Mary Reilly”? — audiences stayed away in droves.  

Tom Cruise set his template early in “Risky Business”: he was cocky and intense and, at crucial moments, flashed his toothsome grin. For the next quarter century, with variations, he delivered more of the same.

Only when his off-screen image became an exponential version of the on-screen one — too cocky and too intense — did fans grow disenchanted.

It’s not as if actors don’t try to break out of their molds. Goldie Hawn gave one of the best performances of her career as a desperate woman on the run in “Sugarland Express” and, apparently, ardently desired and went after — though she failed to land it — the title role in “Sophie’s Choice.” But audiences, particularly after “Private Benjamin,” wanted her only to be the blonde ditz who ends up triumphing despite herself.

Finally ponder the career of Sandra Bullock, at least up until last year’s feisty suburban housewife in “The Blind Side.” Put her in a romantic comedy, and her fans came running. Bullock, however, was clearly also attracted to dark material; she tried repeatedly in movies such as “Murder by Numbers” and “28 Days” to stretch, only to have the films fail to find an audience.

This weekend, two highly recognizable faces, James Gandolfini and Kristin Stewart, give muscles they haven’t used in a while a solid workout in “Welcome to the Rileys,” a compelling, character-driven drama.

Whether audiences will want to see either in these roles in the pertinent question.

Gandolfini plays a midwestern average Joe who’s a nice guy and Stewart portrays a hardened, foul-mouthed teenage stripper. Quite a stretch from his conflicted, often brutal Mafia boss in HBO’s long-running “The Sopranos” TV series and her chaste, love-struck (albeit to a vampire) teen in the wildly popular “Twilight” film series.

The case of Gandolfini and Stewart, of course, is different than Roberts, Bullock et al. He has never been a major movie star — he was a supporting actor on screen before finding fame on the small screen — and she was already considered a talented young actress pre-‘Twilight,” having given impressive and wide-ranging performances in “Panic Room” and “Into the Wild.”

In the minds of their fans, though, their images are fixed. He’s Tony Soprano and she’s Bella Swan. Both are long way from the characters they play in “Welcome.”

In the movie, Gandolfini is Doug Riley, a middle-aged businessman in Indiana who owns a successful plumbing parts company. Early on, we learn that the spark has long since gone out of his marriage to Lois (the redoubtable Melissa Leo), who has been a tranquilizer-popping agoraphobic ever since the couple’s teenage daughter died.

When Gandolfini travels to New Orleans for a business convention, he encounters Mallory (Stewart), an under-age stripper who isn’t averse to turning a trick if the rent was due.

Doug makes it his personal mission to help Mallory turn her life around. His interest in her is paternal, not sexual, which she — never having known decency in her short life — has a hard time understanding and accepting. Soon, Lois gathers her courage and heads to New Orleans herself to find out what’s going on and then stays to help.

The movie, directed with a deft touch by Jake Scott (son of director Ridley Scott), is a small-scale pleasure. These are actors who know what they’re doing, do it well and rarely push too hard. The story unfolds at a natural pace and the ending is guardedly upbeat without being excessively saccharine or Hollywood phony.

"Welcome" makes felicitous use of New Orleans, using locations that go way beyond Bourbon Street and capturing the diversity of a city trying to recover in the post-Katrina era. There are scenes set at an upscale business hotel and in the flashy bars and restaurants of the tourist-filled French Quarter, but there are also plenty of scenes in the city's lesser neigbhorhoods, the low-rent areas where Mallory rents a dilapidated apartment, buys takeout meals at a greasy spoon, and does her wash at the laundromat.

It's exactly the kind of movie the big Hollywood studios can't be bothered to make anymore: a small, adult drama in which no one gets shot or dies and there's not a superhero or robot in sight. One doesn't want to oversell "Welcome" — it's well-done without being life-changing — but it's a welcome reminder that if a movie offers a compelling story and characters, sometimes that's plenty.