Imagine a domineering father so dead set on messing with his two sons’ heads that he gives them both the same name. The ghost of one such dad haunts Rodrigo García’s “Raymond & Ray,” a tired, mild-mannered road trip drama that does the opposite of taking the path less traveled. Portraying the two Rays, stars Ethan Hawke and Ewan McGregor might have some audience pull once this Apple TV+ title settles into its streaming home. But in following the two leads’ emotionally messy characters as they half-heartedly embark on a mission to reconcile with their past, the film has little original to offer.
You’ll recognize the stock story as soon as Raymond (McGregor) pulls into Ray’s driveway one stormy night and stonily announces to his polar-opposite half-brother (Hawke), whom he hasn’t seen in years, “Our father is dead.” Yes, there will indeed be scores to settle from the past, secrets that will pour out and shades of familial grief that will rise to the surface against the odds, as the brothers learn to accept their late parent, a man both wretchedly abusive and charismatically unknowable. If only García, similarly ham-fisted with his 2020 addiction drama “Four Good Days,” were a touch livelier in stewing these familiar elements, or at least gave us a reason or two to feel for these brothers on a melancholic journey of discovery. Instead, “Raymond & Ray” is curiously alienating despite the two A-listers in the driver seat, some decent chuckles to spare and a handsome, cinematic finish courtesy of DP Igor Jadue-Lillo.
On the surface, Raymond is the more responsible kind: clean-shaven, neatly presented and dutiful, giving the impression of someone with a functional grown-up life. Ray, on the other hand, is a free spirit with a standard checklist of traits you’d expect of that type: a disheveled former jazz musician, a recovering addict (now sober for years) and a perennial ladies’ man, working odds jobs here and there, unable to retain any one of them. But not everything is as it seems, and despite his put-together image, Raymond is stuck in a messy situation. A minor DUI has recently cost him his driver’s license, and in the midst of a separation, his third wife refuses to give him a ride to the funeral. So he asks an unwilling Ray to join him in burying their father and reconnecting with each other on an overnight trip, after their drawn-out estrangement.
Predictably, the journey provides both with therapeutic conversations as they exchange memories of a man whose approval and support they desperately sought, but never attained. More than anything, Ray recalls how judgmental the old man was of his music, poisoning his confidence with painful jabs that still haunt him. The tightlipped Raymond suffers under the weight of something even more awful: The reveal is an unforeseen shock, but makes little impact, perhaps because we care so little about the film’s characters, dead or alive. Hawke is unquestionably the more appealing presence here, organically easing into Ray’s scruffy persona, aware of his allure to a parade of women who won’t stop making eyes at him. While Raymond’s contrasting discomfort is obviously by design — he is the uptight one after all — the actor seems too timid and hesitant throughout, feeling as out-of-place as the film’s generically jazzy score by Jeff Beal.
Thankfully, proceedings brighten up a touch once the two Rays reach the funeral home, with additional cast members joining the circus. There is an amusingly by-the-book funeral director fretting over an unsettled balance for his deceased customer’s embalming, a kindly Reverend (delightfully played by Vondie Curtis Hall) and most of all, an influential pair of women from the old man’s past. One is his nurse Kiera (a graceful Sophie Okonedo), who attracts Ray’s attention. The other is the exquisite Maribel Verdú (“Y tu Mama También”), who livens up the whole package in the role of Dad’s ex-lover Lucia.
As Kiera and Lucia share their own pleasant accounts of the late man that vastly differ from those of his sons, it’s quite irritating how much these women resemble manic-pixie-dream figures. Indeed, this broadly written pair seems to exist solely to help Raymond and Ray to make peace with the past — more like on-paper ideals than fully realized characters. Still, Okonedo and especially Verdú make the most of their thankless parts with humor and style, while the two Rays dig their father’s grave — literally, as this just one of the old man’s comically specific, power-tripping requests throughout his will.
There is the slightest hint of wisdom and even joy in the last act of “Raymond & Ray” that makes one interrogate how well we really know our parents — a question most aging human beings ask themselves as the time ticks onwards towards the inevitable. But García’s film is too run-of-the-mill to matter in the end, on its minor excursion to nowhere special.
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