Sam & Kate (2022)

You may as well call it Nepo Baby: The Movie. It stars Dustin Hoffman and his son, Jake Hoffman, plus Sissy Spacek and her daughter, Schuyler Fisk. Real life father/son and mother/daughter playing the same on screen — in both cases, the child clearly riding the wave of their accomplished parent. The nepotism goes deeper than that, though. This movie is brought to you by writer-director Darren Le Gallo. You may know Le Gallo from… exactly zero other credits. This is the first film he’s written OR directed, including short films. But he just so happens to be the husband of Amy Adams, producer of Sam & Kate. It’s all about your connections, people!

Sam & Kate is a lightweight drama in which analogous Hoffmans and Spacek/Fisks begin parallel courtships. Relationships get messy as boundaries blurs and buried demons emerge. It is also very much an examination of the way different generations treat dating and gender roles. Le Gallo is eager to emphasize the difference of perspective and personality of the different generations, almost to a fault: When Sam (Jake Hoffman) pursues Kate (Fisk), he needs to play it indirect and casual, always giving space and acting humble. Bill (Dustin Hoffman), meanwhile, is much more direct in his communication with Tina (Spacek), but has his own little ways of showing humility.

This theme is pretty compelling and teased out, although it means that the movie exaggerates the generational differences of its characters. This is especially punishing for Sam, the junior Hoffman. Of the four leads, Jake Hoffman is easily the weakest. He’s playing a Zach Braff/Josh Radnor/Adam Brody type of nice guy-loser, but without as much of the color and warmth of those actors. He both relentlessly pursues the chilly Kate and constantly self-deprecates, a combo which grows thin.

Fisk, on the other hand, is a revelation. I’ve seen her in my nostalgic favorite kids movie, Snow Day, but that was over two decades ago. She’s lovely and slightly quirky, and she can really sing. She should be cast in some made-for-streaming romantic comedies, pronto. The writing isn’t a home run for her, as it forces her to be resistant and closed to Sam, but she makes the most of it.

But the best part of this movie is the natural screen presence of Spacek and Dustin Hoffman. Watching them is knowing with confidence that they know what to do in front of a camera. That isn’t quite the same as saying the performances are something special — they are certainly good, but in a tossed off sort of way.

There’s a scene about 40 minutes into the film that is one of the loveliest of the year. In an extended take that stretches 2 minutes without a cut, Tina, dancing and flirting with Bill while sipping a glass of wine, gets Bill to stand up from the dinner table and dance with her. It’s amazingly vulnerable and perfect.

The movie is at its best when it’s a good vibes vehicle for most of its middle act. There’s a pair of lovely New Years Eve dates — one at a restaurant, one at an ice rink — and some nice scenes in a little book shop owned by Kate. Bespoke bookstores immediately make me feel sentimental thanks to You’ve Got Mail.

Where it loses steam is in the drama going into the third act. The movie dives deep into a subplot about Tina’s past as a hoarder, which brings out some dour notes in the characters. I can’t blame a screenplay for introducing conflict, but it sputters out the great chemistry between Spacek and Dustin Hoffman just when it was getting really good.

The ending is dragged out — the 110 minute runtime should’ve been slashed by at least 15 — but the very final scene is remarkably kind and gentle. It also closes the loop, in a subtle way, on the generational angst, suggesting optimism for millennials feeling isolated and aimless.

Sam and Kate is mostly competent as a small-scale, visually unadventurous, easygoing drama. The gimmicky casting pays off even if the performances and writing are a bit uneven. If nothing else, I’m glad to have Schuyler Fisk back in my life and see some winning, glory-years performances from two greats.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

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