Hildy Good, the whip-smart and self-deluding Realtor at the center of The Good House, spends a significant portion of screen time breaking a wall — the fourth one, that is. In lesser hands, such a narrative device could be distracting or downright annoying. But Hildy, an alcoholic who’s pretending to be in recovery, is played by Sigourney Weaver, who makes every exasperated glance, incisive put-down and dissembling excuse absolutely magnetic. Her direct-to-camera comments are not merely asides but the core of the film. And, in ways both intentional and not, Hildy’s remarks to the audience are far more compelling than what transpires between her and most of the not-quite-dimensional small-town characters who surround her — the key exception being the high school flame Hildy reconnects with, played to perfection by Kevin Kline.
Writer-directors Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky, working with screenwriter Thomas Bezucha (The Family Stone), have adapted Ann Leary’s best-selling novel with an emphasis on its comic edge and a sometimes ham-handed grasp of its not always convincing plot mechanics. The film’s ultimate shift to addiction drama isn’t in itself a problem, but the events that bring Hildy to a devastating point of self-recognition feel like a clutter of contrivances rather than an involving chain of inevitability.
The Good House
The Bottom Line
Sharp comedy, forced drama, and a spectacular Weaver.
A big fish in a small pond, Hildy has long been a highly successful real estate agent in her hometown on Boston’s North Shore. The market, though, like all markets, is changing. Wealthy investors and corporate interests are moving in, a onetime protégé (Kathryn Erbe, in a thanklessly cartoonish role) has become a cutthroat competitor, and business isn’t what it used to be. Even so, Hildy keeps playing the role of munificent provider, helping to cover expenses for her aggrieved daughters — the glum married one (Rebecca Henderson) and the angsty aspiring artist (Molly Brown) — and continuing to pay alimony to the ex-husband (David Rasche) who left her for a man (but who, like Hildy, is now single).
The idea of real estate as a window into the soul is central to the source material, and some of Hildy’s comments to us are drawn straight from the novel. She can tell you the state of a marriage after one quick walk-through of a kitchen. Chief among the unhappily marrieds are a pair of well-to-do town newbies (Morena Baccarin and Kelly AuCoin) and a psychiatrist (Rob Delaney) and his perpetually dour wife (Laurie Hanley).
Baccarin’s Rebecca becomes a confidant to Hildy, and no kitchen audit is needed to sense her vulnerability and discontent. But mainly the assembled characters’ stories have little dimension other than as plot devices. (Less about plot and more about narrative color are Beverly D’Angelo’s boozy, throaty-voiced friend of Hildy’s, and Paul Guilfoyle’s 12-step veteran and coffee-shop regular, both suggesting the protagonist’s lifelong connections in the community.)
As imperious as she can be, this proud descendant of a Salem “witch” is also damn impressive. Faced with the hard-to-sell house of a working-class couple (Georgia Lyman and Jimmy LeBlanc) who are desperate to move to a larger town and a better school for their autistic son (Silas Pereira-Olson), Hildy masterfully puts together a renovation plan to up their home’s salability. A key part of that plan is Frank (Kline), whose blue-collar scruffiness belies the fact that he’s one of the wealthiest men in town, a thriving garbage-collection service among the businesses he owns.
Driving past a gas station where Frank’s filling up his tank, Hildy swoops in to make her renovation proposal, and their sparring, flirting chemistry jolts the story to a new level. Grooving to the Argent song blasting from his truck radio (one of several boomer-friendly tunes punctuating the soundtrack), Frank looks at Hildy’s Realtor getup and sees a masquerade: “The butcher’s daughter’s gone fancy-pants.”
Other than Frank — and us — who else is worth Hildy’s conversational effort? Many people bore, disappoint or infuriate her (and who can’t relate to that?). It’s a treat to watch her react to the off-the-charts self-involvement of her useless young assistant (a terrifically funny turn by Imogene Forbes Wolodarsky, the directors’ daughter). Unapologetically judgmental and keenly perceptive, Hildy harbors a massive blind spot only when it comes to her own life.
Having been subjected to an intervention — or, as she calls it, an ambush — staged by her family and seen in wry flashback, she’s well past rehab when we meet her. In public she plays the part of someone in recovery, decorously sipping club soda; her evenings are spent downing bottles of merlot. Just as she can’t bring herself to admit the financial strain she’s feeling, Hildy dismisses her daughters’ concern about her drinking as misplaced. (It’s telling that when she refers to “my girls,” Hildy means her dogs.) “Wine is not really drinking,” she asserts. Invoking the therapeutic benefits of booze in a way that recalls Another Round, she declares that she was “born three drinks short of comfortable.” Beneath all these justifications is a sad backstory that speaks to generational differences in how people think about alcohol: Hildy is quick to make the distinction between “a real alcoholic” like her mother and her own high-functioning indulgence.
Forbes, having been a longtime writer-producer of The Larry Sanders Show, understands the friction between professional façade and crumbling spirit. She tackled the subject of mental illness in the well-observed, if insistently upbeat, Infinitely Polar Bear. Observational comedy is her forte, and also that of Wolodarsky (Seeing Other People). In The Good House, they don’t quite make the soapy neighborhood developments, or most of the present-day family stuff, matter. In Weaver’s enthralling performance, though, they have their story’s beating heart. And with Bezucha they’ve crafted some deliriously stinging lines for their star.
The chirpy notes of Theodore Shapiro’s score in the film’s early sections are part of Forbes and Wolodarsky’s scheme of misdirection: Like Hildy, they’re trying to convince us that this is all fun. Eventually, they’ll pull the rug out from under us as well as Hildy, with less therapy-speak than one might fear. To their credit, they don’t deny the joyful buzz of intoxication. In a scene of celebration over a big real estate deal, exquisitely played by Weaver, the directors and DP Andrei Bowden Schwartz capture in glowing intimacy the way the drinks blossom in Hildy, the way a certain warming and disinhibition switches on.
Only a couple of characters in this New England-set film (Nova Scotia provides the picturesque maritime ambience) speak with a New England accent. In a way that’s something of a relief; many a fine actor has strained themselves, and our credulity, over those regional vowels (Exhibit A: Mystic River). Even though Hildy has spent her whole life in Massachusetts, her lack of a Boston accent might be interpreted as a reflection of her worldly, business-minded perspective.
In contrast, the local inflection in Frank’s speech expresses his down home lack of pretension; he’s self-sufficient and, unlike Hildy, couldn’t give a damn what people think of him. With his effortlessly droll, low-key performance, Kline creates quite the mensch. However rom-com formulaic the trajectory of Hildy and Frank’s relationship, it’s impossible not to root for these two sexagenarians, especially during their first awkward date, the conversational lulls filled by the sound of cracking shells and spurting lobster juice.
The two actors’ previous onscreen pairings include The Ice Storm, Ang Lee’s masterpiece and one of the great films about American suburbia. The Good House has nothing particularly incisive to say about its locale, or even about the business of real estate. Hildy’s success means that she’ll be helping to change her burg into one of those tony destinations filled with second homes and showy estates. There are big questions churning beneath the story, yet even Hildy’s personal turmoil feels somehow too neat. In the film’s sharp comic observations, though, and especially its two fine leads, something real and messy sparks to life.