We’ve seen the story play out in a number of different ways before. A young social awkward teen befriends a cantankerous old man. The two quickly build a bond as the elder imparts his wisdom upon the youngling, inspiring him to break out of his shell. Then there’s a brief falling out because that wisdom comes with a harsh edge rooted in a cynicism from a past trauma. Of course, the two reconcile as the saccharine indie pop, usually with a ukulele, plays, and we walk out of the theater knowing that these this young life is forever changed for the better. Joining the ranks of this subgenre is Ashby, writer-director Tony McNamara’s tale of an awkward teen who befriends his gruff neighbor who was formerly a CIA assassin.
Having just moved from Oregon to Virginia, Ed Wallis (Nat Wolff) is still struggling to fit in at his new high school. Though he’s familiar with the works of Hemingway, he’s still the subject of numerous taunts from members of the high school football team. His mother June (Sarah Silverman) is trying on her own to find love, though this leads to some awkward encounters with some his mother’s gentlemen callers. Despite their taunts, Ed trains vigorously in order to try out for the football team. At the same time, he begins striking up a friendship with Eloise (Emma Roberts), a quirky bespectacled girl that’s way too smart to be a believable teenager. When his English teacher assigns him an essay where he must talk to an older person, Ed approaches his new neighbor Ashby Holt (Mickey Rourke), who we’re informed at the beginning of the film has only three months to live. After imparting a handful of life lessons on the teenager, Ed soon discovers that Ashby was a CIA hitman, confessing to have killed 93 people. Through their friendship, Ed will soon be forever changed.
There are some undeniable charms within Ashby, but it’s a film that is consistently undermined by the strong sense of familiarity in its situations. Once again, Mickey Rourke gives a strong performance as this tragically broken man. There’s just something about the once-strikingly handsome Rourke’s visage ravaged by an ill-conceived boxing career and further ill-conceived plastic surgery that lends its self to these convincing portrayals of once-proud men beaten down by life. But Rourke still brings the heart and soul to the film, and to his character who has that unique contradiction of being a devout Catholic eager for redemption in the eyes of the Lord and his occupation as a killer for hire.
For the most part, when Rourke isn’t on the screen, Ashby just doesn’t work. McNamara finds nothing new its football subplot, which is simply rote for most of the film’s attempts at larger themes of loyalty and proper masculinity. Both of the younger leads never find the right tone for McNamara’s incredibly sharp teenagers – Wolff comes off better than his co-star Roberts, a fine actress, who brings this mechanical self-awareness to her character. Then again, her character is a high school whose neurologist father has an MRI machine in the basement which she masterfully knows how to operate the machine and read its results. McNamara is also incapable of bring its familial elements much further than surface. Ed gets irritated by his mother’s attempts to find love and then it’s quickly resolved, but neither the set up nor the resolution hit their desired targets. Meanwhile, he continues to forgive his flaky father until it causes a minor tiff between Ed and Ashby before being dropped outright.
Ashby isn’t an abject failure, it just staggers between something charming and familiar and uninteresting and familiar. There are a number of solid laughs in the film, especially by Jason Davis as the high school English teacher. As much as Tony McNamara tries to make the movie about Nat Wolff’s Ed, the film is about Mickey Rourke’s Ashby all the way. In trying to do too much, McNamara dilutes what could’ve a real charmer. Instead, Ashby is just a movie that hits about half of its targets. That’s not entirely awful, but by no means an elite assassin.