Within the first 15 or so minutes of Apple TV+’s Palmer, something clicks in, a feeling of overwhelming familiarity, an inner voice quietly realising, “Ohhh, it’s that movie.” In this particular instance, that movie being the one about the ex-con who must make good with the help of a cute kid, a sturdy tale oft-told. It’s not that reheating leftovers can’t make for a filling meal but when done with such low energy and with such a low-wattage central performance, it’s hard to see the point. Why not, errrr, tell a new story instead?
To give screenwriter Cheryl Guerriero some credit, there is a slight tweak to the formula and it’s one that gives Palmer its most, arguably only, vaguely interesting moments. While the titular character, played by Justin Timberlake, is every frosty movie ex-con with an easily flipped frown you can think of, the kid who melts him is a gender non-conforming boy who lives in the trailer next door, an intriguingly untold dynamic but one that promises far more than is delivered. Palmer, straight out of jail for a violent crime and straight into the house of his grandmother, played by June Squibb, is eager to restart his life.
But the town he’s come back to isn’t quite so ready, and Palmer’s good intentions quickly fade away. In between bouts of drinking and shagging, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with Sam, played by newcomer Ryder Allen, an eight-year-old boy whose choice of dolls over cars has him painted as an outcast both at school and at home. When Sam’s mother, played by Juno Temple, runs off with her violent boyfriend, Palmer is suddenly left in charge of him while also juggling a burgeoning romance with his teacher, played by Alisha Wainwright.
In the hands of actor-director Fisher Stevens (whose work behind the camera has tended to be non-fiction), Palmer plays like a fourth-rate Oscar bid from the early aughts, all washed-out cinematography and guitar pluck score, the kind of film that would have aimed to break big at Sundance with critics calling its lead performance “revelatory”. Perhaps in another universe with a better script and a different star, that might have been the case. But instead, Palmer is more of an “I’ve seen everything else, so sure” kinda plane movie, sort of competent enough but never reaching any of the high highs and low lows a drama such as this requires. The story is one we can predict, almost down to every last beat, which again wouldn’t necessarily be a major problem if it was told with a bit more fire, but it’s all so low-key, so third gear, that it’s frustratingly hard to feel even the slightest of emotion.
Where the film does briefly come almost alive is in its positioning of Sam, a boy who’s more comfortable playing with toys traditionally intended for girls and, when allowed, dressing that way too. Even if Guerriero can’t quite figure out the nuts and bolts of his relationship with Palmer (a sharper script would have been able to lay a more believable foundation in the first act for us to then be more attached by the third), there are effective moments showcasing the prejudices faced by kids who don’t conform to the gender norms we still thrust on to them. It’s told in broad strokes, but then stories like this, in order to reach a wider, judgmental audience who might need a bit of spoon-feeding, often need to be, and while I craved more substance and knottiness from the film, it’s a small step in the right direction with regards to a specific form of representation.
It would have been understandable, and perhaps merciful, if Timberlake had decided to call it quits as a non-Trolls actor after his mortifyingly miscast turn as a sailor turned lifeguard who dreams of being a playwright in Woody Allen’s equally misjudged Wonder Wheel. Three years on and a gritty lead role in a more stripped back drama should be the one to finally edge him into a more mature stage of his career. But Palmer is the kind of character made for handsome actors who associate depth with beard length, a movie type rather than a living, breathing human being. Timberlake is just about fine, going through the motions with the same plod as the film around him, never truly bad but never good enough, a performance that fails to convince us yet again that live-action acting is a good fit for him.
Despite the flashes of something more challenging, Palmer is a film content to play it safe (his true road to redemption is to slot himself into a ready-made nuclear family), a truly whelming experience that wants you to desperately feel everything from tears to joy. But ultimately, the only persistent feeling is that of deja vu, that we’ve been here before too many times, and wouldn’t it be nice if we could go somewhere else instead