Could Jackie & Ryan even be called a movie? And does it really matter? This underdeveloped romance seems to be lacking an act, or two, or maybe even three. But it’s filled with such great music that the emotions are there regardless. Not unlike Once, the movie itself feels like an excuse for the music. And as with Once, that’s not always a bad thing.
The film follows Ryan (Ben Barnes), a modern-day hobo riding the rails, guitar in hand, busking along the way as he makes some vague noises about maybe starting a recording career. One day in Ogden, Utah, he finds himself playing on the street for Jackie (Katherine Heigl), a former country star now going through a messy divorce and living with her mom (Sheryl Lee). A minor car accident brings them together, and soon enough, they’re making eyes at each other while he fixes her mom’s roof and teaches her daughter some guitar licks.
That’s basically it; that’s the movie. It’s like a Nicholas Sparks logline, only he forgot to write the story. Oh, there’s some incident and conflict filled in here and there, and there’s some backstory revealed. There’s much strange back-and-forth about the legal minutiae of Jackie’s divorce. Her mom doesn’t seem to like Ryan very much. Meanwhile, Ryan has a friend Cowboy who mentored him in riding the rails and who … well, he doesn’t really do anything since he’s off riding the rails and we never see him. But we do see his wife, Virginia (the wonderful Clea DuVall), and baby, and we understand, perhaps, that sometimes there’s a cost to leaving everything behind — that the world can become overwhelming for someone who is unprepared for it. “Pretty soon he was just this man, looking up at all these things that were taller than him,” Virginia observes, talking about how everything from a double shift at work to medical bills would set him off.
Jackie & Ryan is not naturalistic enough to feel like a slice of life and not coherent enough to feel like a proper narrative. Director Ami Canaan Mann (daughter of Michael, himself a master of sneaking narrative in through style) does have an idea here, and it has to do with emotional baggage and laying down roots. Ryan has almost nothing to his name and seems free, but as the film progresses, he starts to realize what he’s missing. At one point, as they drive past some train tracks, Jackie asks him what it’s like to ride the rails. “You have to wait for the right one. It can take days sometimes,” he replies. “How do you know it’s the right one?” she asks. “It’s going where you want to go” is the response. Had their chemistry been stronger, maybe it’d be easier to absorb the point that he’s talking as much about relationships as train cars.
Jackie, in the meantime, probably wishes she were free and lighting out for the territory. Instead she’s tied down here in the real world, dealing with the logistics of a divorce, with finding a job, with trying to figure out what to do with her apartment in New York — all the bullshit of the world. It could have made for a compelling film, had Mann found a way to unite these disparate, cerebral elements — if she could have cinematically conveyed his freedom and her entrapment. As it is, the film feels like an uncomfortable hodgepodge of styles and tones — gritty and realistic when it’s following Ryan, awkwardly staged when it’s following Jackie.
But then, dammit, somebody opens his or her mouth and sings, and all is right with the world. Music is the uneasy glue that holds Jackie & Ryan together. Ryan sings a combination of folk and oldies and bluegrass, and we can sense in the songs a lot of the feeling that the rest of the movie lacks. Even the performances get better with the music; Barnes’s longing look at a too-expensive guitar in a high-end shop is more passionate than any glance he gives Heigl. And when the actress belts out a song at a “Fiddle Night” event in town — it’s reportedly her own singing voice — she seems to become a totally different person and performer. Maybe there’s an idea there, too. Maybe the choppiness of the film is meant to serve the unifying beauty of the music. I’m not so sure: The musical performances, while beautiful, don’t always further the story, or even the relationships. They kind of hang there, haunting reminders of a film that could have been.