It's clever, perhaps, of What They Had's squabbling family to be no more engaging than most real people's, but that makes the film a tough sit. This brittle and cantankerous comic drama, written and directed by actress Elizabeth Chomko and boasting a top-shelf cast, zeroes in on wrenching choices millions of adults face as their parents age: how to care for them while still living a life. Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon star as siblings urging their father (Robert Forster) to consent to putting his wife/their mother (Blythe Danner) into a nursing home dedicated to patients with Alzheimer's. A haze has settled over the mind of Ruth, Danner's character; in scenes poised uneasily between the tragic and the comic, she forgets her husband's name, calling him "my boyfriend," and mistakes a stapler for the telephone. The father is reluctant, of course, terrified at the thought of change, while the kids both could use some change of their own: Her marriage is stale, and he's too surly and agitated to commit to anything except the Chicago bar that he owns.
Curiously, paying for the nursing home never seems to be an issue. Instead, the sticking point is simply the father's refusal, not just to upend their life together but even to discuss the possibility. Forster's character shuts down every discussion of this with shouts, while Swank and Shannon's characters bicker in circles, and Danner edges uncomfortably close to Harpo Marx territory. Swank is a sturdy, compelling lead, but she fares best in scenes not involving the family, like one awkward, desperate flirtation with a chap she knew way back when. But the family squabbles jangle the nerves while not hitting on insights or memorable emotion.