For Julia Roberts, the past year has been one of challenging herself and her fan base, and it’s been quite stunning to witness.
She did so by teaming with “Mr. Robot” mentor Sam Esmail to enter the streaming-series realm with Amazon’s “Homecoming,” and she did so again in the independent-film world as the center of “Ben Is Back,” writer-director Peter Hedges’ drama about the effect of a recovering addict’s return to his family at holiday time.
The titular Ben is that returnee, played by Lucas Hedges (the filmmaker’s son), and he strikes very authentic-feeling notes as someone who maintains he’s getting sober – but who also leaves enough doubt for others to be concerned about his renewed presence in the household. The main skeptics are his stepfather (Courtney B. Vance) and his sister (Kathryn Newton of “Big Little Lies”), but his mother Holly (Roberts) withstands their worries to put her faith in him.
That’s a risky emotional bet, since others, including drug suppliers both licensed and highly unlicensed, pose hurdles to Ben and his path. In turn, they also are potential problems for Holly, whose gamble on Ben doesn’t necessarily include complete conviction that he’ll be able to resist such temptations.
While the cast of “Ben Is Back” is uniformly fine, the heaviest lifting falls on Roberts, who manages to stay true to her brand while also moving past it to meet the story needs here … no small feat. Strength and empathy have been the Oscar winner’s chief trademarks, and while those remain present in her work as Holly, she has to stretch and contour them in developing her portrait of a woman who is certain the sheer force of her love will cure her family’s ills. But then again, maybe it won’t.
That’s where credit also goes to director Hedges’ script. It’s as suspenseful as any spy story to see how the events play out, and whether they’ll draw the family members closer together – the traditional way a holiday story would go – or ultimately drive them farther apart. For a very substantial stretch of “Ben Is Back,” either outcome is possible, making this a brave story to tell with a major star such as Roberts at the forefront.
With her being in it, “Ben Is Back” is likely to have a long life beyond its theatrical release, but it’s also important to note its artistry in dealing with addiction. As history has indicated, that theme will have relevance for a long time to come, too.
To a certain extent (but only to a certain one), you can’t fault the picture for wanting to try a different approach, since there is such a long legacy already established. After the 1938 Warner Bros. staple “The Adventures of Robin Hood” came an animated Disney version, an elder-statesman Hood (in the persona of Sean Connery) in “Robin and Marian,” and even a comical Robin in the Mel Brooks spoof “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.” And that’s just to name a few of the other takes.
As today’s younger actors go, Egerton isn’t a bad choice to be a new Robin Hood. He may come across as a bit too young for the role, but that’s less a fault of his than a measure of the median age of past screen Robins, who generally have been on the older side (yet still able to handle the physical requirements of the part, a tribute to their respective trainers and/or stunt doubles).
Leonardo DiCaprio is a producer of this latest version, and while his intentions probably were good, the result is something of a well-costumed mess. It’s pretty bad when you have a “Robin Hood” that can’t see the Sherwood Forest for the trees.