Should you tip the boy who brings you the telegram that says your son is dead?
That dilemma and others covered in Ithaca, loosely based on William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, which is not remotely funny. But it did give Meg Ryan some comfort when she was going through her divorce from Dennis Quaid, so what better material to use in her directorial debut?
She plays the mother of sons, a hard thing to be in 1942; Marcus, who is off to war (played by Jack Quaid, Ryan’s actual son), Homer (Alex Neustaedter) who struggles with being the 14 year old man of the house now that his father (Tom Hanks) is gone, and little Ulysses (Spencer Howell) who doesn’t remember anything different.
This is really Homer’s story and the growing up he had to do. He’s such an exuberant kid at the start of the film, determined to be the best and fastest bike messenger in town. But 1942 means WW2, and WW2 means lots of devastating telegrams. How does it transform a 14 year old kid to deliver grief in an envelope? To witness the moment a woman is made a widow? To see a mother torn apart by pain? That’s pretty heavy stuff to be grappling with when you’re also mooning over your first crush and taking your little brother down to the local fishing hole. It makes for a heightened existance, but it’s also just life for Homer, who has his own little odyssey to live.
The film is a little under-achieving, a retread of themes we’ve seen elsewhere, and often. Sam Shepard has a pretty compelling role, which makes up for the very rare glimpses we get of Hanks. If it doesn’t quite live up to its potential, it’s still bittersweet in its nostalgia, and tucked sufficiently at my heart strings. Meg Ryan hasn’t hit it out of the ballpark on her first swing as director, but don’t count her out.