Like many an entertaining addict, Hildy Good is a great storyteller, providing withering judgments about the people in her orbit amidst all the latest gossip. But like all addicts, the stories she tells always exonerate herself and her behavior — she’s just fine, it’s everyone else who’s messed up. And so what if she sneaks wine after having already been sent to rehab? She never drinks before 5pm, so it’s not like she’s an alcoholic or anything.
Sigourney Weaver plunges herself into the role of Hildy in “The Good House,” and it’s been a while since this titan of cinema has been given a character with the complexity (and the screen time) that the actor deserves. Weaver’s droll comic style has surfaced periodically over the course of her career — for someone who came up alongside Christopher Durang, the movies haven’t allowed her to be funny nearly often enough — but here’s a film that gives her the opportunity to be both hilarious and tragic, in control and spinning completely off course.
Directed by Maya Forbes (“The Polka King”) and Wallace Wolodarsky (the underappreciated “Coldblooded”) — who adapted Ann Leary’s novel with co-writer Thomas Bezucha (“Let Him Go”) — “The Good House” gets away with choices that would have ruined lesser films, from giving the lead character a double-meaning name (and putting it in a punny title) to incorporating first-person, spoken-to-camera narration throughout. It’s also the rare movie that’s both a star vehicle and an ensemble piece; this is Weaver’s show all the way, yes, but she’s surrounded by townsfolk played by the likes of Kevin Kline, Morena Baccarin, Rob Delaney, Kelly AuCoin, Paul Guifoyle, and Beverly D’Angelo.
The town in question is the fictional seaside village of Wendover, Massachusetts, a Boston bedroom community where Hildy’s family has lived for generations. Divorced, but paying alimony to her ex and financially assisting two grown daughters, Hildy is in perpetual motion as a real estate agent, schmoozing newcomers to town and making the rounds of local parties.
Those shindigs are less fun for her than they used to be — she was forced into rehab after her family had an intervention for her — so now public-facing Hildy has a club soda while home-alone Hildy cracks into her secret wine stash. Also participating in that intervention was Hildy’s former assistant Wendy (Kathryn Erbe) who filched Hildy’s contacts during that rehab stint and set up shop as a rival. Mind you, that’s how Hildy describes what happens, and over the course of the film, it’s more and more clear that Hildy is a supremely unreliable narrator, the way addicts tend to be.
A local affair between neglected wife Rebecca (Baccarin) and town therapist Peter (Delaney), a missing child, and most of all, the rekindling of Hildy’s high-school romance with local contractor Frank (Kline) will push Hildy to a reckoning with the high-wire act that is her life. But “The Good House” doesn’t play out as a conventional substance-abuse narrative, mainly because Hildy has a such a strong POV that her version of events, no matter how harrowing or damning, never come off as treacly or sentimental.
Which brings us back to Weaver’s powerhouse performance. There’s not an ounce of self-pity to Hildy, even as she begins coming to grips with the demons of her past and the pain that she has buried under what Peter calls her “Yankee stiff upper lip.” (Weaver could teach even “Fleabag” star Phoebe Waller-Bridge a thing or two about fourth-wall breaking.)
It certainly helps that “The Good House” provides a solid context for Hildy and her life by making Wendover such a vivid place and its residents so fully present. With Nova Scotia filling in for New England, production designer Carl Sprague and location manager Andrew Sheridan give us a full picture of a town, from vast estates to the beach where working-class families congregate to Frank’s half-finished house, with the drywall still showing. Sometimes, it takes a village to tell a story, and the town (including the deep bench of character actors playing the residents) plays a key role here.
If the film missteps at all, it’s in the last 20 minutes or so, where the writers perhaps overplay their hands at both metaphors and metaphysics, not that the screenplay hasn’t laid the groundwork for both. (Also, if Hildy’s ex-husband left her for a man, as she mentions several times, why does that man never accompany her ex to family functions?)
Those are minor flaws in a film that’s so skilled at juggling its tones: In the broader sense, this is a John Cheever–ish tale of a New England town and its secret infidelities and chemical abuse, with an unspoken but ever-present tension between the townies and the weekenders. As it draws deeper into Hildy’s life, however, “The Good House” almost resembles a horror film in which our protagonist is both killer and final girl, with the stakes and suspense emerging from our anticipation of her hitting bottom and just how bad that’s going to be. Instead of “don’t go in the basement,” it’s “don’t uncork that bottle of Merlot.”
It’s all too rare that audiences are treated to a big-screen examination of a woman’s inner turmoil, let alone a woman in the grandmotherly phase of her life; this one pops with both acrid wit and meaningful drama. (Not to mention that American movies where attractive leads in their 70s enjoy an active and joyful sex life appear about as often as Halley’s Comet.) Let us raise a glass (of sparkling water) to more movies like this one, and more roles like this for Weaver.
“The Good House” makes its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.