Rodrigo García’s charming two-hander Raymond & Ray is the double-act we never knew we needed, an unlikely pairing — Ethan Hawke and Ewan McGregor — in a similarly unexpected comedy from a director better known for gentle female-fronted dramas. Truth be told, Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall was a little big for it (Sundance might have been a better platform), but this TIFF Gala Presentation from Apple Original Films went over well and could well be this year’s indie sleeper, with awards potential for its ensemble cast, and Hawke in particular.
The setting doesn’t suggest a barrel of laughs — the uptight Ray (McGregor) turns up at the home of his laidback jazz musician half-brother Raymond (Hawke) with sad news: their father is dead. It soon becomes clear that neither has any affection for the old man — he was, after all, “a bitter son of a bitch” says Ray — but Raymond is insistent that they attend the funeral, if only “to see what it looks like to put him underground.” Ray relents, and the two men set off on a journey of self-discovery that takes many surprising and funny turns, despite the apparent gravitas of the situation.
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Their father, referred to as Harris by the brothers, is the third wheel in this odd-couple scenario, and the pain he caused them in life (he’s the kind of father who’d give his sons the same name just to mess with them) is matched by the trouble he makes in death. To receive their inheritance, the pair must dig his grave by sundown, but first they must go to the funeral home, where Harris has bought the cheapest coffin of them all — a literal wooden box — in which he has asked to be buried naked and face down, a bizarre custom that has something to do with his “Tongan roots” (Harris turns out to have reinvented himself a lot in later life, converting to Judaism from Buddhism). Then they visit his home to pick up a ragtag selection of heirlooms, which is where they meet Lucia (Maribel Verdú), his free-spirited lover, and finally they head to the chapel of rest, where Ray encounters Kiera (Sophie Okonedo), Harris’ nurse in his dying days.
The two brothers have a lovely sad-sack chemistry together — as Ray puts it, they’re “a couple of grown-ass men whose lives didn’t pan out” — but their individual identities are distinct. Raymond, nervous and fidgety, is at the end of his third failed marriage, having suffered the indignity of being cuckolded by his own father, while Ray, a swaggering womanizer, is on the rebound from a serious heroin addiction. In the course of the film, each meets a woman who turns out to be sympathetic to their needs, a slightly schematic plot device that nevertheless works out thanks to the caliber of the cast.
Though both have equal screen time, things perhaps work out a little better for Hawke than they do for McGregor. Here, McGregor is the comic foil, and his timing is wonderful, his startled-rabbit face doing the heavy lifting whenever the dry existential humor threatens to cross over from Beckett into Monty Python territory (wait till the tumblers turn up). McGregor also gets to fire a gun, a very funny twist on Chekhov-ian convention that brought the house down in Toronto.
Hawke, though, has more of an arc, and his relationship with Harris will turn out to be the more conflicted and mysterious of the two. While it’s wonderful to see Verdú and Okonedo, both talented and charismatic performers, their roles don’t go quite as deep as the two guys’, and there comes a point around the 80-minute mark where Raymond & Ray seems to run out of road, leaving the remaining time to pair off the two couples, with varying degrees of success.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot to like here, and with the fall festival season failing quite dramatically to offer up the awards-season juggernauts they promised in principle, García’s film could creep up on voters with a softly-softly campaign based on its powerhouse acting credentials and poignant exploration of family secrets and ties. As Coda showed earlier in the year, Apple has a bit of form when it comes to that.
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