In Scrabble-speak, one could say that Bill Nighy lands a double word score in Sometimes Always Never. The film itself, however, doesn’t net as many points. This offbeat dramedy proves that Scrabble is the game that unites and divides families. But it mostly reaffirms Nighy’s status as one of the coolest actors around. As Alan, an ageing and impeccably dressed tailor, Nighy plays to the best aspects of his persona (that groovy rocker in Love, Actually, anyone?) and brings this film to life.
Sometimes Always Never follows Alan as he tours small towns in search of his son, Michael. The young man went missing following a game of Scrabble turned awry, and now his dad frets about the board, reconsidering every letter he placed on the tiles throughout the years.
As Alan searches for Michael, he obsesses over an online game of Scrabble and wonders if the player on the other side is his son. Alan sits on the computer and fusses about the letters and words that drove Michael away. His younger son Peter (Sam Riley) tries to hold the family together and focus on the present. Their relationship is as easygoing as it is terse, and makes for a believable family dynamic. (The cringe-worthy bits with Peter’s wife and son, however, seem like they’re in a totally different farce.)
The lead actors compensate for the film’s awkward visual style that’s flatter than a Scrabble board. Director Carl Hunter, bass player for the British rock group The Farm, doesn’t have the best eye. He plays every shot a bit too wide whenever the camera isn’t zoomed in on a game. Negative space overwhelms the film. It captures the emptiness of Alan’s life without his son but also rendering Sometimes Always Never awkwardly stilted. (It looks like a filmed play.) The film is weirdly paced and inconsistently channels the styles of Zac Braff and Pedro Almodóvar with wonky colour palettes and wonkier shots, but it’s undeniably endearing.
Fortunately, though, the lead actors, Nighy especially, have the screen presence to keep it afloat. Sometimes Always Never, which gets its title from Alan’s advice on how to button a blazer (sometimes the top button, always the middle, and never the bottom button), is rarely high art when it comes to the visuals, but consistently entertaining thanks to the players in the game.
Alan’s one of those hard-core Scrabble players who know how to maximize a triple word score. He can’t express himself to his sons, but he knows every two-letter word that begins with Q and contains no U. These people—and I fully admit to being one of them—can be infuriating to play with. Nighy totally gets the grating wordsmithing that drives a Scrabble player to nutty perfectionism. Every word out of his mouth is well played, turned around like letters placed on the board for maximum effect. It’s hard to make word games funny, heartfelt, and engaging for 90 minutes, but Nighy somehow does it.
Sometimes Always Never opens on October 4, 2019.