Film Review: Furlough

This female version of an interracial “buddy movie” would not have been any better (or funnier) with two guys in the leads, so don’t blame Tessa Thompson and Melissa Leo for making 'Furlough' into a bit of a mish-mash.
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One cannot say it was a totally bad idea to do a cinematic riff on a movie like Midnight Run, with women instead of men playing both the cagey convicted criminal and the clueless police officer who takes charge of transporting the criminal somewhere. And it wasn’t a mistake for the filmmakers to take advantage of our current “woke” moment by making the imprisoned female here a white woman, while the officer is African-American. 

So, okay. But the feminist, anti-racist setup is the only clever thing in Furlough, because the film’s script (by Barry Strugatz) is all over the place, and likewise the direction by Laurie Collyer. Is this supposed to be a comedy, or a touching story about female friendship? Or is the ultimate moral here about mother/daughter bonding? It’s hard to tell.

Whoopi Goldberg plays the first mother we meet, a loud but lovable hypochondriac who can’t seem to find her medication or anything else without the help of her living-at-home daughter, Nicole (Tessa Thompson), a part-time corrections officer at an upstate New York women’s prison who hopes to land a permanent position there. The prison warden (Erik Griffin) promises Nicole the promotion if she’ll take one of the prisoners, Joan (Melissa Leo), on a 36-hour furlough to visit her dying mom. The insolent, smart-alecky Joan has only six months left on an eight-year sentence for armed robbery, so the warden doubts she’ll make any move to jeopardize her parole, but nevertheless he warns Nicole to keep the prisoner shackled at all times and, oh yeah, “Don’t believe a word she says.”

At first all goes well: Nicole and Joan board the bus taking them to New York City, but the minute they get there, Joan devises one crazy ruse after another to fool Nicole into removing her restraints and letting her satisfy some of the basic desires she’s been stifling for nearly eight years: food, sex, and a do-over complete with a new, softer hair style and a full makeup job. Actually, the do-over comes before Joan leads Nicole into a Hell’s Kitchen church where, she just happens to know, there’s a 12-step meeting for sex addicts. Nicole’s subsequent search for Joan and her new lover—a guy known as “Super Vet” (Édgar Ramírez)—is the most implausible caper in this wildly implausible movie.

But, oh wait, there are other contenders: Along the way, Nicole accidentally connects with her own “love interest,” who pops up out of the blue, and there’s also the “Say what?” bit when Joan’s long-estranged dying mother—a very rich doyenne ensconced in a Long Island mansion—announces she’ll leave Joan $100,000 a year, but only if Joan promises to stay away forever from her granddaughter, Joan’s daughter, whom Joan hasn’t seen since giving birth to her. (Anna Paquin appears as said daughter near the end of the film and guess what? She’s the exact opposite of her schizoid mother, too normal to be believed.)

Throughout all the disjointed action, Nicole’s cellphone rings incessantly, and most of the calls are from her dotty mom to complain that she can’t find the frozen waffles or some such. All we can say is “Thank God for Whoopi Goldberg,” for she’s the only actor in Furlough who goes for honest laughs. Not that Melissa Leo doesn’t try to inject a little slapstick into her role as the good-girl-gone bad, and occasionally—when she’s not trying too hard—she succeeds. Tessa Thompson also has some funny moments, but mostly she’s the one who plays it straight—the steady, thoughtful presence, the character you watch and root for. Both Leo and Thompson deserve better, of course; they deserve to co-star in a movie that has more going for it than being a not-bad idea that badly misfires.

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