Say what you will about Justin Timberlake, he’s certainly not lazy. The 40-year-old singer/actor/wardrobe apologist has kept himself busy ever since he split with *NSYNC nearly 20 years ago. He’s conquered the pop music scene with solo records, charmed filmgoers in multiple genres, and used toys from the 60s to make kids jump around. Now that he’s a bearded middle-aged family man years removed from the curly-haired playboy two decades ago, his career should obviously reflect that. And since his last album, 2018’s country-roots-pop mashup Man of the Woods, bricked with critics and audiences, Timberlake is betting his image on his movie career.
Timberlake is the title character of Palmer, a former high school football star turned ex-con returning to his rural hometown with his head hung low and trucker hat turned down. Now living with his grandmother (June Squibb) and trying to restart his life, Palmer notices the downtrodden family in the trailer next door. There’s an abusive truck driver (Dean Winters), his drug-addled girlfriend (Juno Temple), and their son Sam (Ryder Allen), who likes tea time and fairy princesses more than football and sports. When Sam’s mom and dad skip town without him, Palmer and his grandmother take the boy in to make sure he stays in school. Though closed-off and dismissive at first, Palmer comes to care about Sam and gets motivated to put his life back together.
One has to wonder how much Apple TV+ paid for the streaming rights to Palmer, given that the movie itself only amounts to a Dollar Store redemption tale. The script by Cheryl Guerriero actually brings a variety pack of wholesome schmaltz: an ex-con reforming his life, a lost child finding his own family, an outcast embracing his personality, and a homecoming journey. While the script has pieces of these things scattered throughout like a garden salad, it has trouble making them come together cohesively. It’s like the movie is a collection of 20-25 minute vignettes where one section is Palmer being foreign in his own hometown before the movie jumps to the next section of Sam being picked-on at school. It’s possible the movie would’ve been more balanced if the focus was on both Palmer and Sam instead of mostly on Palmer, who doesn’t have a very interesting backstory or development. It is commendable that Palmer treats Sam’s plotline seriously and doesn’t make him or his detractors cartoonishly over-the-top, especially since director Fisher Stevens has a history with stereotyping.
Though someone who takes the movie a bit too seriously is its star. It’s smart that Timberlake has covered his handsome Hollywood smirk with a buzzcut and a scraggly beard, but he doesn’t bring all that much else to the role. The look is there, with Timberlake getting the somber demeanor and the shamed grimace on the face of an ex-con right. What’s missing is any sense of charm or tenderness that Palmer is supposed to develop while watching over Sam. Timberlake is so deep into the character’s solemness that he forgot to show the impact of Palmer’s redemption. He has allure and charisma, but Timberlake may have exposed himself as a more superficial actor than he lets on. The real charm comes from Allen, who has such an assured confidence in his performance for someone so young and in his film debut. He’s the consistent bright spot of the movie, matching wits with his adult co-stars and presenting his character’s femininity in a very casual way. It’s a shame the movie doesn’t leave more room for him to interact with the rest of the cast like Squibb and Temple, who seem to fall by the wayside for more of Timberlake’s grumbling.
For all its wholesomeness and good intentions, Palmer just doesn’t have enough to warrant major investment. If you’ve seen at least one drama about personal redemption, you’ve likely seen everything Palmer has to offer. Its drama is boring, its humor is missing, and its message, while necessary, is warmed-over instead of fresh.
Palmer is now streaming on Apple TV+.