Yes, this anthology film by director Mark Pellington (Arlington Road) and writer Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip) is about nostalgia, but of a very particular kind: our sentimental attachment to objects. It's an unconventional subject for a star-studded melodrama, but Pellington and Perry never quite manage to make it compelling.
The narrative is divided into three loosely connected sections of increasing length. In the first, Daniel (James Ortiz), an insurance assessor, mediates a conflict between an elderly hoarder (Bruce Dern) and his granddaughter's family over his refusal to part with his belongings, which are probably worthless. In the second, Daniel does the same for a widow (Ellen Burstyn) and her son's family after she loses her home in a fire. As the script keeps reminding us, the older generation's stubbornness has little to do with the economic value of their memory objects. At the end of the second episode, the widow is forced to choose between the financial independence she would gain by selling her one potentially valuable family heirloom, a baseball signed by Ted Williams, and her son's wish for her to give the ball to him and move into an assisted living facility.
However familiar they are, none of these conflicts produce much drama. This is mainly due to a hodgepodge of odd creative choices that don't gel. Nonprofessional actors might have lent some authenticity to the mundane events, but it's hard to imagine one getting through the convoluted speechifying that makes up most of the dialogue. It's also unclear why Daniel is built up as a kind of secular saint, impartially listening to the confessions of America's sad, white middle class, and then vanishes from the film halfway through. Nostalgia's only consistent feature is a maudlin tone that sometimes veers into the ridiculous, as when Daniel pretend-opens the missing door of the widow's burned-out house, moving through the rubble with his eyes closed as if investigating psychic residue instead of an insurance claim.
Jon Hamm and Catherine Keener get top billing in the promotional materials, and their episode probably should have been the whole movie. Hamm plays Will, a lonely divorcé who visits his sister, Donna (Keener), to help—you guessed it—deal with the stuff their parents left in their family home after moving to Florida. The tedium is interrupted by an unexpected tragedy, and the film briefly comes to life. Yet it's there and gone, the act of mourning quickly shifting into a lesson on why storing data on digital devices makes it harder for our loved ones to remember us. Had this second half been given room to breathe, its discourse on memory might have emerged organically from an actual drama. Despite the best efforts of an impressive cast, Nostalgia comes off as an occasionally affecting personal essay in need of an editor.