Sometimes, a performer’s sense of charm and charisma can salvage a sketchy script. Such is the case with Carl Hunter’s “Sometimes, Always, Never,” a slight dramedy that, at its core, has a reasonably interesting premise yet is sorely in need of a nip here and a tuck there. Be that as it may, this well-meaning exercise is saved by actor Bill Nighy, the veteran actor who, after 25 years on the English stage and television, became an international favorite with his turn in 2003’s “Love Actually.” He’s the kind of performer who, whenever I see his name pop up in the credits, I perk up because I know that at the very least he’ll bring a spark to any scene he’s in, whether it be a vampire epic (he’s a hoot in 2003’s “Underworld”) or the umpteenth adaptation of a Jane Austen novel (“Emma,” from earlier this year).
Nighy is Alan, a successful tailor who has a passion for Scrabble. It would perhaps be a stretch to say he’s obsessed with the game, but not by much. He has no problem hustling unsuspecting players when the opportunity presents itself, and if there’s a spare minute, you can be sure he’s studying word variations or vocabulary from other languages. He’s such a stickler where the rules of the game are concerned that his oldest son, Michael, left one night due to an argument over a word that was played and hasn’t been seen since, severing contact with his family so completely that he’s presumed missing or perhaps dead. When a body is found in another town that’s approximately the age Michael would be, Alan and his other son, Peter (Sam Riley), set out to see if it is his prodigal son, a trip that ends up having unexpected consequences for both.
Though the film is under 90 minutes, at times it seems much longer as the script by Frank Cottrell Boyce takes on far too many issues, some of them abandoned before being fully developed. An affair with a dissatisfied woman (Jenny Agutter) is an unnecessary subplot, while the mystery surrounding Michael’s disappearance is prolonged to the point of tedium. However, once Alan ingratiates himself into Peter’s home, the relationship he forms with his grandson, Jack (Louis Healy), proves poignant. Taking the young man under his wing, he attempts to redeem himself by caring for his grandson in ways he never did Michael and Peter, teaching him the proper way to dress and comport himself, instilling a sense of confidence in the boy that gets him out of his shell.
These moments are the high points of the film, as Nighy underplays the comic and poignant scenes to great effect, knowing the value of a well-placed pause or small gesture. He’s the rare performer who elevates everyone around him, as nearly every scene he’s in has a degree of energy you can tell his co-stars are feeding from.
The movie’s final act is rather contrived, and I’m not sure all of the pieces fit together once the big reveal occurs. By this point, it’s become evident that the plot is of little consequence to Hunter, the focus being the relationships at the film’s center. This is a movie of moments, some funny, some tragic and just enough of them are sincerely rendered to make this enterprise worthwhile. “Sometimes” is fine but would have been much less without Nighy’s presence and the work of its fine cast. In the end, like a desperate Scrabble player with one vowel and five consonants on their rack, they come up with something valuable.
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