Review: ‘The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,’ starring Kunal Nayyar, Lucy Hale, Christina Hendricks, David Arquette and Scott Foley

December 3, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kunal Nayyar and Lucy Hale in “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry”

Directed by Hans Canosa

Culture Representation: Taking place over 14 years, primarily on the fictional Alice Island, Massachusetts, and briefly in Providence, Rhode Island, the dramatic film “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A cynical bookstore owner, who is depressed over the death of his wife and his financial problems, gets a new outlook on life when he adopts an abandoned child and falls in love with a sales agent who works for a book publisher. 

Culture Audience: “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the book on which the movie is based and will appeal to people who don’t mind watching slow-paced and sloppily constructed dramas.

Pictured in front: Kunal Nayyar, Christina Hendricks and Scott Foley in “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” should have been titled “The Lifeless Story of A.J. Fikry.” It’s a weak, boring and jumbled mess with confused tones and unanswered questions. The movie can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a weepy melodrama or a romantic dramedy—and ultimately fails at being either or both. Viewers will learn almost nothing about the movie’s self-pitying title character except that he likes to whine a lot when his life doesn’t go the way he wants.

Directed by Hans Canosa, “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is based on Gabrielle Zevin’s 2014 novel of the same name. Zevin wrote the lumbering screenplay for “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” as if it were a book with many chapters removed instead of a cohesive and enjoyable story. It certainly looks like Zevin might have been too close to the source material to not have better judgment in deciding what would work and what would not work in a movie adaptation of the book. There are too many times in the movie where a subplot is introduced and then left to dangle undeveloped.

Part of the problem is how choppy the timeline is in “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” which takes place over 14 years. The movie spends too much time showing repetitive scenes in one part of A.J. Fikry’s life and then rushes through other parts of his life that needed more screen time—or at least more substance or explanation. It’s this disjointed approach to the movie that eventually sinks it and will be a turnoff for a lot of viewers.

In the beginning of the film, bookstore owner A.J. Fikry (played by Kunal Nayyar) is living a miserable and lonely life on the fictional Alice Island, Massachusetts, which has the population of a small town. And no one loves to talk about how unhappy A.J. is more than A.J., who complains about his life to anyone who’ll listen. His narcissism immediately makes him a very annoying character.

A.J., who lives alone, is a 39-year-old widower who is still in deep despair over the death of his wife. (It’s not made clear in the movie how long she’s been dead.) Grieving over the death of a spouse is understandable. The problem is that A.J. takes his negative feelings out on the customers in his small store (which is called Island Books) by being very rude to them. His excuse? “Since my wife died, I hate my work,” A.J. tells a doctor when A.J. ends up in an urgent care clinic after A.J. has a panic attack.

A.J. is also depressed because his store is close to going out of business. A.J. blames it on the popularity of e-books. But it’s obvious that A.J.’s lousy customer service has a lot to do with driving customers away. A.J. repeatedly gripes to people that that he’s “poor,” when he’s really not. He’s a middle-class person having financial problems. Being “poor” is worrying about how to pay for life essentials, such as food and basic shelter. A.J. doesn’t have that problem.

A.J. is depicted as a borderline alcoholic who drinks too much wine until he passes out when he’s home alone. His diet consists mainly of boxed frozen dinners. All of this is supposed to make viewers feel sorry for A.J., but he’s often so obnoxious, it will be difficult for people watching this movie to see what’s so interesting about this irritable character.

The beginning of the movie shows A.J. being visited at his store by a book-publishing sales agent named Amelia “Amy” Loman (played by Lucy Hale), who is 30 years old, and who works from her home in Providence, Rhode Island. The movie mentions later that Alice Island is a five-hour trip one way from Providence, and can be accessed by ferry. As soon as Amelia and A.J. have their first conversation, it’s obvious that they will later become each other’s love interest. We’ve seen this formula many times already: A future couple meets for the first time, and one person is standoffish and dismissive to the other, but they have a spark of attraction that gets ignited later.

Amelia has a perky personality that gets a little deflated when she tries and fails to get A.J. to buy a memoir called “The Late Bloomer.” Amelia explains that the author of the book is an 80-year-old man named Leon Friedman, who got married for the first time at age 78. Sadly, his wife died of cancer three years later. This movie is so poorly written, the math doesn’t add up in Leon’s story. Leon supposedly wrote the book after his wife died, which means that he would be at least 81 years old, not 80. Leon and “The Late Bloomer” become another ill-conceived and unnecessary subplot shown later in the movie.

Amelia says in her sales pitch about “The Late Bloomer” book: “I know this is a small book, but readers could fall in love with it the way they fell in love with ‘Angela’s Ashes’ or ‘Tuesdays With Morrie.'” A.J. tells Amelia in no uncertain terms that he’s not interested in buying copies of “The Late Bloomer” because he says the book sounds dull and “intolerable.” And in a very jaded tone of voice, A.J. then proceeds to name a long list of book genres that he doesn’t like (including memoirs), thereby making it clear that A.J. hates most types of books.

Why does A.J. own a bookstore if he has disdain for most books? He wants to sell the store, but he doesn’t think he’ll find any buyers who’ll pay a purchase price that he needs to make a profit. A.J. has a financial safety net that he plans to use to get rid of his money problems, but he runs into a setback for this plan.

A.J. has a rare first-edition copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tamerlane and Other Poems,” a book collection of poems that was first published in 1827. A.J. estimates that the book is worth a price that should get him several hundred thousand dollars if he sold the book. He’s so proud of the book, for a period of time, he kept it in on display in his store before deciding to keep it locked up in his home.

One evening, a drunken A.J. takes the book out of a locked storage display case in his home and says out loud to the book: “Cheers, you piece of crap.” The next morning, after waking up from a drunken stupor, A.J. notices that the book is missing. He looks everywhere for it in his home and is convinced it was stolen by someone who knows how the valuable the book is.

A.J. goes to the local police station to report that the book has been stolen. The person who takes the report is Alice Island’s police chief, whose only name mentioned in the movie is his last name: Lambiase (played by David Arquette), who is sympathetic but a little skeptical that the book was stolen. Nothing else of value was taken from A.J.’s home, and there were no signs of an intruder.

Because Alice Island is a small community, Lambiase already knows about A.J.’s reputation for being a heavy drinker. And so, Lambiase takes the theft report as a formality, but he hints that he thinks A.J. could have drunkenly misplaced the book somewhere in A.J.’s home. (It’s eventually revealed what happened to the book.)

The movie then shambles along with a lot of tedious and meandering scenes showing A.J. being a grouch, as well as the tension-filled relationships that A.J. has with his deceased wife’s sister Ismay Evans (played by Christina Hendricks) and Ismay’s husband. Ismay, who is pregnant in the beginning of the movie, is married to an arrogant and famous novelist named Daniel Parish (played by Scott Foley), who is very flirtatious with his female fans. Daniel is supposedly the closest thing that A.J. has to a friend, but Daniel and A.J. act like they don’t like each other very much.

Ismay isn’t too happy with A.J. because she thinks he’s “self-destructive” and has no friends. Ismay believes that A.J. is disrespecting the memory of her deceased sister by leading a life of such self-sabotaging misery. When A.J. tells Ismay that his valuable Edgar Allan Poe book has been stolen, Ismay says that there could be any number of reasons for why the book is missing. She tells A.J. that maybe he was sleepwalking, and he accidentally tossed the book in the ocean.

Soon after his book goes missing and A.J.’s financial woes get worse, he’s at the bookstore and is ready to close it for the night when he finds an abandoned and adorable 2-year-old girl named Maya (played by Charlotte Thanh Theresin) who has been left at the door. Maya has been left with a note written by her single mother, who says she can no longer take care of Maya, and asks the owner of the store to make sure that Maya gets a good home.

Why did Maya’s mother leave her child at A.J.’s bookstore? In the note, Maya’s mother says that it’s because she grew up loving books and figured that whoever owned the bookstore would be someone trustworthy. Unbeknownst to A.J., Maya and her mother were in the store a few days earlier. But because of his awful customer service skills, he barely noticed them when Maya’s mother asked for his help in finding a book. Maya’s mother eventually left the store without buying anything.

Maya was abandoned at A.J.’s bookstore at around 9 p.m. on a Friday, and A.J. brings Maya to the local police station. Ismay happens to be with him too. Labiase says that the Massachusetts Department of Family and Health Services can’t be contacted until Monday. A.J. doesn’t think it’s right to leave Maya at the police station. Ismay is having a later-in-life pregnancy and doesn’t want any stress to complicate the pregnancy by taking care of a 2-year-old child. And so, A.J. surprises himself by offering to let Maya stay at his home for the night. He admits he doesn’t know how to take care of kids her age, but he thinks he can try.

You know where this is going, of course, especially if you’ve seen the trailer for “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.” A.J. decides to keep the child, and he raises her as a single father. Before that happens, a few days after Maya was found abandoned, Lambiase and his deputy co-workers discover the dead body of Maya’s mother on a beach. She died of an apparent suicide. Her name was Marian Wallace (played by Lizzy Brooks), and she was a 22-year-old student and champion swimmer attending Harvard University on a swimming scholarship.

The next thing viewers know, it’s 14 months later, and A.J. has adopted 3-year-old Maya (played by Estella Kahiha), who is a playful and energetic child. A.J.’s time as a foster parent and the adoption process for Maya are completely erased from the story. The movie’s brief depiction of A.J. not knowing how to cope with a crying 2-year-old Maya on the first night she’s in his home doesn’t count as showing him spending quality time with this child. It’s a very clumsy fast-forward to the story to go from A.J. finding this abandoned girl to then adopting her.

How did a depressed, borderline alcoholic with financial problems get approved for this single-parent adoption? The movie never explains that either, but it’s implied that no one else wanted to take care of Maya. His financial problems apparently went away, because by the time Maya is shown at age 5 (played by Jordyn McIntosh), A.J. still owns the bookstore, and he never talks about being broke, like he does at the beginning of the movie. His drinking problem also magically disappears too, because it’s never mentioned or shown again.

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” then takes another abrupt turn when the Maya subplot gets sidelined for a long and uninteresting stretch of the movie where A.J. and Amelia have an up-and-down, long-distance courtship that starts off very awkwardly. A.J. is attracted to Amelia and wants to date her, but she’s engaged to a man named Brett Brewer, who is in the military. Brett is never seen or heard in the movie, which is an obvious sign that the relationship isn’t going to last.

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” than gets distracted with another subplot about the unhappy marriage of Ismay and Daniel. Viewers might be wondering, “Wait a minute. Wasn’t Ismay pregnant in the beginning of the movie? Where’s the child?” It’s later explained what happened to her pregnancy, but this explanation is dropped into the last third of movie when it should have been mentioned much earlier. This is the type of unimpressive and choppy storytelling in the movie.

One of the biggest flaws in “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is how it never tells anything about A.J. Fikry’s backstory. Viewers never find out where he grew up, if he has any family members, or how and why he fell in love with his wife. It’s also never clear if it was a longtime dream of his to own a bookstore, or if he just fell into it. His dislike for most books that he ranted about to Amelia in the beginning of the movie is never really mentioned again.

The movie has some acknowledgement of Amelia’s family and backstory, but Amelia is depicted in a shallow way too. During their courtship, she doesn’t seem to care to find out more about A.J.’s family, his background, or how he’s taking care of Maya, nor does A.J. share that information. Amelia’s emotional baggage (she’s still not completely over her father dying when she was a child) is briefly mentioned.

Amelia has an opinionated widowed mother named Margaret Loman (played by Chandra Michaelsa), who eventually meets A.J. when she goes to Alice Island with Amelia for a visit. The movie never really succeeds in its efforts to convince viewers that A.J. and Amelia fall deeply in love. Amelia and A.J. seem like a couple that started out as friends and then ended up together out of loneliness and perhaps some emotional desperation.

Small but important details are completely ignored. For example, while A.J. and Amelia go on dates with each other, it’s never explained who’s taking care of Maya. She is never shown having a babysitter or nanny. A.J.’s parenthood is a flimsy plot device that has no real substance, based on how little screen time is given to Maya in her childhood. It isn’t until the last third of the movie, when Maya is 14 years old (played by Blaire Brown), that she is shown to have something close to a personality.

The movie then takes another drastic shift in tone for the most tearjerking part of the story in the last third of the movie, which is just a tangle of soap-opera-level plot twists. Tearjerking scenes work best when viewers feel like they’ve gotten to know the characters well enough to care about them. The character of A.J. seems very hollow, considering the movie reveals very little information about who he is as a whole human being. It’s like he dropped out of the sky to be put in an uninspiring and sloppily made movie.

The romance part of the story is very lackluster, since Nayyar and Hale do not have believable chemistry with each other as A.J. and Amelia. The cast members’ performances aren’t terrible, but they aren’t special either. The overall direction and film editing are amateurish, as if the filmmakers had no specific vision for the story, and just cobbled together a mishmash of scenes, with the hope that everything would hold people’s interest. “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is a title that suggests the movie is the story of a fascinating person. Unfortunately, A.J. is a protagonist whose life in this disappointing movie is the equivalent of a book with many blank pages in between a lot of rambling.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” in select U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022. The movie’s release on digital and VOD was on November 22, 2022.

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