Slight ‘Coda’ wears out its welcome

Frank and Jackie Rossi act like post-hippie parents in Gloucester, Massachusetts. She likes wine, he prefers weed. They still enjoy passionate sex. They don’t own fancy clothes. They run a fishing business. The difference, though, is that the Rossis, including son Leo, are Deaf. Their daughter Rubi (Emilia Jones) has never minded serving as hearing person — until the high school senior realizes her talent for singing threatens to take her to Berklee. Her parents’ need overcomes their love; they don’t want her to leave. This is the premise off Coda.

AS played by Troy Kotsur and Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, Frank and Jackie Rossi have manipulated their condition to keep themselves sweetly detached from the rest of their world, including their kids. They don’t mind feeling dependent on Rubi; they turn love into co-dependency. Defying the tendency to sentimentalize people with disabilities, writer-director Sian Heder isn’t shy about turning Frank and Jackie into smiling monsters quite aware of what they’re up to.

But Rubi has other recourses. Enter Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez). One of those teachers we often had (and seen in movies) whose private life is kindling for his volcanic rages, Mr. V as he’s called has no fucks to give. On hearing Rubi’s voice he pairs her with Miles (a charming Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). At first she’s so mortified that she insists on singing back to back instead of face-to-face. Gradually, because Coda is one of those movies, they fall in love after Rubi encourages him to join her jumping off cliffs into a freezing river. They still have to make their cover of “You’re All I Need to Get By” work, and they ain’t Marvin ‘n’ Tammi. Then there’s the matter of Berklee: Mr. wants her to go, has even saved her an audition slot.

Coda is two movies, and the one in which a barely middle-class family whose heads are Deaf tries to eke out a living is by far the most interesting. When a local board imposes fees on the fishermen’s products, the Rossis strike out on their own, expecting Rubi to continue as hearing person. The casting, however, becomes a problem when watching this, the more interesting film. Apologizing for having sex with Jackie loud enough for Rubi and Miles to overhear, Frank signs that he can’t help it, she looks like a model. That’s just it: Matlin is too glamorous, too amiable, to look as if she’s lived on sun- and salt-blasted fishing boats (kudos, though, to her determination to work with a Deaf cast). Kotsur, who in certain angles resembles Willie Nelson in the 1980s, fares better; with his wide eyes and long hair, he’s a man who has kept his capacity for self-parody and self-amusement.

The staging of the actors and the mediocre writing keeps Coda from rising above the level of a well-intentioned trifle. Turning the Rossis into the Coolest Middle-Aged Deaf Couple strains Heder’s talents; in a way it’s as condescending as reducing them to victims. I couldn’t buy the script’s insistence on Rubi as the family’s only hope — couldn’t the family find an inexpensive hearing person? In addition, the romance between her and Miles goes from 0 to 90 because, well, movies like this have expectations to meet. The chemistry between Rubi and the persnickety Mr. V is the film’s heart anyway. The inevitable happy ending doesn’t mitigate the poignancy of Rubi’s triumph, but it did raise the question: will the Rossis survive in this economy, with or without a hearing person?

GRADE: B-

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