‘Made in Italy’ Review: Father-Son Bonding, Under the Tuscan Sun
There’s an indisputable emotional force at the core of this story about an estranged father (Liam Neeson) and son (Micheál Richardson) who travel together to Tuscany to sell a house that neither has seen since the car-crash death of the man’s wife. Made in Italy has nothing to do with the tragic 2009 loss of Neeson’s actress wife, Natasha Richardson, and the mother of Micheál, who took the Richardson name to pay tribute to the British actress. Still, the mutual grief and abiding love felt by the Irish actor, 68, and his son, 25, cuts close to home and brings the film a touching honesty it otherwise sorely lacks.
In his debut as director and screenwriter, actor James D’Arcy (Jarvis the butler in Avengers: Endgame) resorts to familiar soap-opera beats that tend to ring false as the dramedy loses its lightness. A big help is the Tuscan scenery, shot with a poet’s eye by Mike Eley, that even grinding plot mechanics can’t spoil. Neeson plays Robert, a once promising artist who lost the will and talent to create after an accident claimed his wife Raffaella. Preferring the distraction of drink and one-night stands, Robert is no comfort to Jack (Richardson), the son he shut out of his pain and consequently his life nearly 20 years ago. It’s money that pushes Jack, faced with the break up of his marriage, to reach out to his dad. Raffaella has left both an equal share in the Tuscan house and Robert could use the money to buy an art gallery owned by the parents of his ex. But he’s on a deadline and dad is a drag.
Like the Robert-Jack relationship, the Tuscan house is in shocking disrepair. Kate, the astringent broker played by Lindsay Duncan, fears she’ll never find a buyer. There’s rubble everywhere, a weasel in the cupboard and an ugly red mural that Robert splashed on one entire wall in a fit of Jackson Pollock-esque rage. Don’t think for a second he’s willing to paint it over. Can Robert and Jack come together in only five weeks to turn the house into a showplace? For a moment, you’ll find yourself hoping that Chip and Joanna Gaines of Fixer Upper will pop in and turn the movie into real-estate porn.
No such luck. Instead, D’Arcy lays on some wince-worthy contrivances. On a trip to town, Jack runs into the gorgeous Natalia (Valeria Bilello), a local chef (her risotto is to die for) with a young daughter she adores and an ex-husband she doesn’t. A ready-made family for woebegone Jack? How’d you guess? The sight of them triggers Robert’s memory of his son as a child and the bond they once had when he’d built a swing for the boy out of a tire and rope, and life was idyllic in ways you only see in cornball movies. Neeson and Richardson, rising above the script’s mawkish muck to grasp at something genuine, are still something to see. Ditto glorious Tuscany. But Made in Italy (available on demand starting Aug. 7th) never finds the secret sauce that could turn leftovers into a feast to remember.