I’m not sure what’s more incredulous, director Kim thinking she’s Bob Rafelson or her thinking her For Ellen lead is Jack Nicholson.
Besides the inept, predictable rip-off (or homage) of one of Nicholson and Rafelson’s more famous moments, the only thing distinctive about For Ellen–besides some great photography and location shooting–is Shaylena Mandigo as the title character. Kim gets an exceptional performance out of Mandigo, who’s seven or so. In her scenes with Dano, Mandigo acts circles around him. It’s embarrassing for Dano.
Other than those scenes, Dano is the whole show in Ellen. One has to assume Kim has him ad-libbing some of the more inane exchanges. He’s a struggling musician (it’s never clear if he’s any good, doesn’t seem like it), who travels from Chicago to an undisclosed small midwestern town to sign his divorce papers. There he mets his daughter (Mandigo) for the first time.
But for the first hour, the film’s mostly Dano wandering around. He hangs out with his weird, small town lawyer (Jon Heder in a thankless role). Dano’s not just unlikable, he’s boring. Director Kim must have really thought he was giving a better performance than the one she put on film. Or video. You get the idea.
As for Kim… her composition is great. Her dialogue’s awful, but her direction of talky scenes is good. She tries to be very cute with the exposition, which flops.
Ellen’s got nothing to offer except Mandigo and cinematographer Reed Morano.
Written and directed by So Yong Kim; director of photography, Reed Morano; edited by Bradley Rust Gray and Kim; music by Jóhann Jóhannsson; production designer, Ryan Warren Smith; produced by Gray, Kim and Jen Gatien; released by Tribeca Film.
Starring Paul Dano (Joby), Jon Heder (Mr. Butler), Jena Malone (Susan), Margarita Levieva (Claire Taylor), Julian Gamble (Mr. Hamilton), Dakota Johnson (Cindy) and Shaylena Mandigo (Ellen).