Not as funny as it wants to be nor dramatic enough when it needs to be.
Ashby starts off like most schoolyard coming-of-age story’s as our main character Ed Wallis (Nat Wolff) arrives at a new town and attempts to fit in at school. When called upon by his teacher on the first day, Ed reveals his extensive knowledge of Ernest Hemingway—instantly earning him nerd status among his classmates. It’s an exaggerated classroom setting for sure, one where chants from the football team can happen at any moment and homosexual slurs are said aloud in front of the teacher. But it does get across the stereotypical slacker personalities of the upcoming Generation Z. In an effort to encourage students to take a break from narcissism, the teacher assigns the class to interview an “old person” and write a 2,000-word report on them. And just so happens that Ed moved in right next door to an older gentleman.
This is when Tony McNamara’s script begins to sound a lot like the plot of last year’s St. Vincent starring Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy. It turns out that Ed is neighbors with a dry-witted crackpot named Ashby (Mickey Rourke) who enjoys drinking and smoking by himself. Ashby is reluctant to answer any of Ed’s questions at first, but maybe because he sees a little of himself in the young kid, the crotchety old man slowly opens up. Ed soon discovers Ashby is a retired CIA assassin with nearly a 100 kills credited to his name, and by driving him around to various locations, he unknowingly gets caught up in the middle of Ashby’s assassin life.
The biggest nuisance of Ashby is that it tries to combine two very different narratives into one cohesive storyline. In one corner is a dark story about a man attempting to absolve his sins and overcome his wrongdoings. And in the other corner is a story of a teenager trying to build enough courage to stand up for himself by trying out for the football team. But there’s no graceful transition between them. So a scene featuring a silly pep talk from the high school football coach is followed by a bloody shootout between Ashby and his next target.
Ashby could’ve been better had it focused on just one of its storylines. While both threads contain a story worth exploring, the attempt to blend the two ends up being a jarring mismatch of tones. This makes it difficult to figure out which audience the film is targetting. Half the time it seems like the film caters to high schoolers, while other times the aim is more towards adults.
Furthermore, by not narrowing the scope of the story, McNamara leaves some interesting subplots unresolved. The most notable example is the abandoned subplot of Eloise (played by a nerdy looking Emma Roberts). For most of the film, she’s determined to study how football players’ brains are impacted by hard hits on the field. But the results of this experiment are left unanswered and completely vanishes from the storyline. In the end, her character merely serves as a love interest of Ed and a much too convenient tie-in with the football theme.
On a positive note, Ashby contains great performances from its cast. Rourke is excellent in portraying a lonely misanthrope who can somehow be redeeming in certain moments. Wolff continues his trend of playing a relatable, yet average high schooler as he has now in recent films like Paper Towns and The Fault In Our Stars. The standout of the film might have been Sarah Silverman had she been given a larger role than the recently divorced sexually active mother. Roberts is excellent too, but also underdeveloped.
Ultimately, if any part of Ashby sounds remotely interesting, you’d be better off watching St. Vincent instead. Not only does it contain a very similar story as Ashby, but the film better in just about every way.