LONDON: In playing a grizzled ex-con who forms an unlikely friendship with a precociously cute kid, Justin Timberlake has opted for a role presumably intended to showcase hitherto unseen acting chops and kickstart a solid mid-career lurch towards more serious roles. In “Palmer” — a new Apple Original movie directed by Fisher Stevens — he gets plenty of chances to glare frostily through his very serious-looking beard and gruffly drop hints to the titular hero’s murky past. Struggling to keep a job (and keep out of trouble), Eddie Palmer winds up as the temporary guardian to his young neighbor, Sam, an eccentric kid whose flamboyance makes him an easy target for bullies.
Somewhat predictably, the two develop a kinship that inevitably brings out the best in them both. When Eddie gets a job as a janitor at Sam’s school, the pair fall into a quasi-parental pattern that further cements their bond. And when Sam’s mother returns to belatedly take some responsibility for her son, Palmer must fight to keep his new, unorthodox family together.
Timberlake clearly relishes the heft of the lead role, and the relationship between Palmer and Sam (played with abandon by Ryder Allen) is heartwarming. For the most part, however, “Palmer” is simply too predictable — with all the carefully choreographed tugging on the heartstrings, there’s a distinct feel of Oscar baiting by numbers — to cover any new ground. At its heart, Steven’s movie falls back on the notion that finding a surrogate family is the key to all Palmer’s problems. If anything, Eddie’s checkered past is simply used as a narrative crutch to explain why he’s been away, when it could have been a jumping off point for a character with a fresh take on many of the issues and preconceptions that run rife (and ruin lives) in small town America.
So, while it’s nice to see a new side to Timberlake, and there’s a satisfyingly saccharine story arc to the movie that will warm hearts, “Palmer” feels like it could have been more, if only it had been prepared to take some risks.