VENICE — Director Ami Canaan Mann's country music romance "Jackie & Ryan" is a film that raises many questions. The first is: Christ, is that dirt on his hands or some singularly ill-advised finger tattoos? Yep, those are definitely finger tattoos. And not very good finger tattoos. But let's try not to be personally offensive or get too hung up on some really, really bad finger tattoos. The hands defaced by the finger tattoos (did I mention the finger tattoos? They're just awful) belong to Ben Barnes' country singer Ryan, whom we meet as he brews his morning pot of coffee on a goods train heading in the general direction of Ogden, Utah. These hands are soon revealed to be instrumental to turning the engine of the plot, such as it is - these hands play guitar, fix roofs and politely caress Katherine Heigl's single mom Jackie.
A rollin' stone just a-blowin' in the wind, Ryan has songs in his soul but a reluctance to play them for an audience, because… reasons? I don't know, something about needing to give his public (read: five people listening to him busk) the cover songs they demand. Maybe throw something about a mean stepfather having crushed his dreams into the mix too? Sure, that'll do. Why not. I guess it doesn't matter too much that Ryan's inevitable personal journey towards stepping up and doing his own material is a touch underdeveloped - his arc is secondary to Katherine Heigl's story. A shame, then, that this too is pretty inconsequential -- will she retain custody of her child in the aftermath of an ugly divorce? Stay tuned, because they're saving that bombshell revelation for the sequel. This is more about learning to #TreatYoSelf, emotionally speaking.
Of course, not all stories have to be of great consequence. It's not Jackie & Ryan's job to look unflinchingly into the heart of human darkness and emerge forever changed by the experience. We have Ulrich Seidl and Joshua Oppenheimer for that. Jackie & Ryan is a cozy woolen throw of a film, something familiar to snuggle up in, possibly with a loved one, and don't worry if you spill red wine on it -- with that pattern, it won't show. Actually, when Jackie and Ryan finally do get it on, after a boatload of emotional foreplay but no real sexual chemistry, the act itself apparently takes place underneath a violently ugly multicolored throw, the sort of thing that only some incredibly deodorized, pore-less missionary sex could possibly happen underneath. It almost makes the finger tattoos look good. I said almost.
Thereafter, we're involuntarily enrolled as students in pillow-talk philosophy 101: "You never ask yourself how you got here?" No, but: "Every day I ask where I'm gonna go next." Don't worry if you chose this point to take a bathroom break: this sentiment will return in the film's closing minutes by way of a recap for those who've just tuned in.
At this point in the review, I'm starting to feel like I just drop-kicked a puppy, so let's talk about what works. La Heigl is a great fit for the role despite her character occasionally feeling like someone knitted her out of chunky wool. Heigl has exactly the right vibe for her backstory: country singer with one hit album latterly fallen on hard times. Isn't that what you've always thought Katherine Heigl evoked, really? You can stick her in all the power suits you like, but those Muscovado sugar eyes, treacle blonde hair and peach blossom complexion have always screamed Lurleen Lumpkin, not Lindsey Naegel. She looks like a smart version of Jessica Simpson.
Ben Barnes too has the requisite masculine sensitivity and fathomless dark eyes that almost persuade us Ryan is more interesting than he is. He is occasionally betrayed by a script that demands he deliver corndog lines like "I'm gonna make sweet music on it" when presented with an Emotionally Significant Guitar. The lyrics of his big musical number hint at a more R-rated version of the character than is ever glimpsed on screen: "I'm drunk as hell tonight…" Really? Because if Ryan was a drink, he'd be half a Coors Light.
Jackie & Ryan is, in the final analysis, perfectly serviceable cotton candy, and perhaps not done any favors by its presentation alongside more heavyweight dramas at Venice. The Utah skyline has never looked so good (props to DoP Duane Manwiller), and it's always nice to check in with Clea DuVall ("The Faculty", "Homeland"), although her secondary role and storyline feels like something that was trimmed back to hit a theater-friendly 90 minute runtime. The best thing about it is is that it shies away from formula, and the worst is either the finger tattoos, or the fact that it hasn't really come up with much to replace the formula it so carefully and laudably avoids.