Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A lonely young kid befriends a curmudgeonly neighbor and a bond develops that changes both of their lives. A staple of coming-of-age films about identity and self-worth, it’s familiar because…well, it works. Tony McNamara’s slightly offbeat comedy “Ashby” provides a welcome twist on the formula by adding a touch of hit-man violence and melodrama, but it’s neither funny or insightful enough to make a real impression.
Part of the reason “Ashby” is so forgettable falls on the shoulders of star Nat Wolff, seemingly the new face of every mediocre teen movie around. The “Paper Towns”, “Admission”, and “Behaving Badly” (good lord that one was painful) star plays Ed, a lonely kid who has just moved to a new neighborhood with his mom (Sarah Silverman). She’s out there in the dating scene, which makes for a few awkward encounters, while Ed is trying to find out where he fits in at school. An obvious outsider, Ed clicks immediately with fellow misfit Eloise (Emma Roberts), who shares his opinion that “most people are idiots”. He also makes friends with his next door neighbor, a surly, somewhat ragged older gentleman named Ashby (Mickey Rourke). It’s all part of an assignment from Ed’s snarky teacher to go out and meet someone with greater life experience (read: old), but the two discover they have certain things in common.
For one, both Ed and Ashby are unsure of who they are in the world. It turns out that Ashby has a killer past, literally, as a government assassin-for-hire. Now retired and diagnosed with a terminal illness, he’s coming to grips with the terrible things he did and trying to make amends. Ashby’s a smart kid but he secretly yearns to be popular, and he quickly recognizes the only way to do that is football, which he happens to be very good at. He’s a wuss when it comes to getting hit, but otherwise it moves him up the social ladder while confusing his relationship with Eloise.
Much of the film centers on Ed unwittingly driving Ashby around so he can murder some double-crossing colleagues and the violence are portrayed with a coldness that clashes with the film’s generally light tone. While Ed and Ashby’s interactions are often bouncy and humorous, Ashby’s story is a somber one. The same can be said of Ed’s relationship with his estranged father who repeatedly neglects his son’s needs. Ashby fills in that paternal void to a degree, teaching the young kid the harsh reality that people will always let you down. It’s inevitable.
So there’s a lot going on, and McNamara struggles to tie everything up while maintaining the film’s generally airy tone. Ashby’s killings are often intercut with scenes of Ed’s football prowess or romantic pursuits, creating an odd whiplash emotional effect. Silverman is sorely underused as Ed’s needy mom, and that Roberts gets so little screen time when she’s at her adorable best is criminal. At this point Rourke naturally exudes world-weariness and it works here as the tortured former killer. Wolff, on the other hand, is always a notch too earnest in every single scene. It’s a recurring problem that has the effect of making his performances blend together. “Ashby” is engaging enough, and features strong performances by Rourke and Roberts, but it’s not a film that will linger on the mind for very long.