In “Raymond & Ray,” Ewan McGregor and Ethan Hawke play half-brothers journeying together to attend the funeral of their father, from whom they both were estranged.
The movie, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival prior to an Apple TV+ release, opens with Raymond (McGregor) driving through the rain to the cabin of Ray (Hawke), because an unannounced in-person visit is the only way to tell Ray that their father, Harris, has died. The funeral is scheduled for the next day, and Harris’ final wishes include both sons attending the funeral, digging the grave and putting Harris in the ground together.
Having been a serial philanderer and physical abuser, Harris does not exactly stir up the warm fuzzies for the siblings. Ray has zero interest in going, but the more staid Raymond apparently yearns for closure and can’t afford to drive himself 200 miles to Richmond, Va., on a suspended license. He pleads for Ray to take him.
Upon arrival, they make the rounds to the morgue, the funeral home, the attorney’s office, Harris’ ex-girlfriend’s house, etc. Much to their dismay, not only did women find Harris irresistible, but former associates have nothing but glowing things to say about him. Yet when the visitation begins, only two paid seat warmers are waiting at the door. Harris apparently alienated just about everyone during his lifetime, so it’s unclear why everyone has chosen to gaslight the brothers this way. Or perhaps writer-director Rodrigo García simply hasn’t thought it through.
García has drawn up an ensemble of complex and interesting characters who have the potential to make decent protagonists. This explains why the film has attracted McGregor and Hawke. But the filmmaker doesn’t know what to do with the characters or how he might get them to gel with one another. The screenplay starts out strong, but then it becomes a slog. It’s impossible to discern which scene, if any, García has designated to be the climax, because the plot remains flat throughout. It continues to drag quite maddeningly even after the burial.
While it’s clear Harris has alienated his sons, we don’t get a real sense of how the brothers have drifted apart over the years or if this trip does anything to mend the rift. García does not dig deeper into their schism to arrive at a cathartic epiphany. He exhausts this premise early on and then splits up the siblings to have them interact with other characters.
The second half gets pretty contrived, as García methodically assigns each brother a love interest. He pairs Raymond off with Lucia (Maribel Verdú, “Pan’s Labyrinth”), Harris’ ex-lover, and Ray with Kiera (Sophie Okonedo), Harris’ nurse. Lucia is sort of fascinating on the surface, and we can even overlook her inability – possibly caused by a language barrier – to articulate her attraction to Harris. Kiera is more of an enigma. Perhaps that’s the whole point, but it just comes off as her being an underwritten love interest. These romantic tangents sidetrack the ending so far away from the original premise that the strained kinships that have set everything in motion become an afterthought. New characters show up for the burial; while we won’t spoil the surprise here, suffice it to say that at this point García appears to have depleted his ideas and is flailing.
Hawke is one of the few bright spots here, managing to eke out a soulful performance. Ray is a recovering addict, a trumpet player and, among other things, a womanizer like Harris, and Hawke somehow brings everything together into one cohesive performance. One supposes that a positive about the film is that it gives Hawke much more to work with than did “The Black Phone.”
McGregor, who previously starred as both Jesus and Satan in García’s “Last Days in the Desert,” has the less showy role, though he holds his own in scenes shared with Hawke.
Another highlight is Jeff Beal’s jazzy score. It’s always refreshing to hear anything other than the generic indie-film trance music, which has become sort of an auditory cliché. While Beale’s compositions aren’t nearly as transcendent as, say, Dave Grusin’s, they are at least a nice touch. Director of photography Igor Jadue-Lillo has captured one exquisite still shot, but the rest of the film’s visuals don’t stand out enough to warrant a theatrical run along with the Apple TV+ launch.
García has directed films that include “Mother and Child” and “Albert Nobbs,” and he has an accomplished career producing and directing TV (“In Treatment,” “Blue”); he has no problem attracting major talents and landing a premiere spot in a prestigious film festival. On top of that, “Raymond & Ray” counts Alfonso Cuarón as one of its producers.
The project probably sounded like a winner in a pitch meeting, but middling doesn’t even begin to describe the finished product; it’s not even Lifetime movie caliber. Simply put, this is “content” with recognizable stars. It’s a bit bewildering that the streaming wars have kind of devolved to Apple TV+ racing Netflix to the bottom.