The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry’: Too much story, not enough life

Kunal Nayyar in “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.” MUST CREDIT: Vertical Entertainment

Set in a small independent bookstore and centering on its proprietor, a curmudgeonly widower, “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is permeated by love. Not the romantic kind – although there is a little of that, too – but mostly the love of reading, writing, thinking about and talking about books.

“A place without a bookstore is not a place,” someone says when the existence of the film’s bookstore setting is threatened. If that sentiment makes you smile (guilty), or even jump up, pump your fist and shout “right on,” this movie already has a leg up.

So it is more than a little bit odd and disappointing that it is ultimately not a great story, but an overly eventful one marred by cliche and melodrama.

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Based on Gabrielle Zevin’s 2014 bestseller and adapted for the screen by the author – who is as known for her adult novels as she is for her young-adult fiction – “Fikry” takes place on a quaintly fictional island off Cape Cod, in a picturesque town where the film’s 40-something protagonist (Kunal Nayyar of “The Big Bang Theory”) has been drinking himself to sleep every night since his wife died, in the depressing little living space behind his shop. It’s a shop whose owner has strong opinions about literature, freely shared, but not many customers. His place is as cluttered and dingy as a used bookstore, although it’s not one – at least not exclusively. A.J. does stock some new releases, scattered among prop books that look like they were sourced from a few dozen estate sales in Hyannis.

Kunal Nayyar, left, and Lucy Hale in “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.” MUST CREDIT: Vertical Entertainment

If A.J.’s business plan seems flawed, he has an escape plan: Sell his first edition of “Tamerlane” by Edgar Allan Poe and drift off into boozy retirement on the proceeds.

But three things happen in close succession: A 2-year-old girl is abandoned in the shop and adopted by A.J., “Tamerlane” is stolen, and A.J. meets someone. That someone being Amelia (Lucy Hale), a publisher’s rep who is as pretty as she is bookish, and who, somewhat preposterously, falls for the older alcoholic while she is in town hawking her employer’s new titles.

To be sure, A.J. does get his life together enough to qualify to adopt the little girl, named Maya. And Nayyar, I’ll admit, makes an unexpectedly charming antihero. The rest of the cast is strong, too, with easy, laid-back performances by David Arquette as the affable town cop and Christina Hendricks as the sister of A.J.’s late wife, married to A.J.’s best friend and the island’s best-selling novelist (Scott Foley). Playing Maya, from age 2 to adolescence without much distinction, are Charlotte Thanh Theresin, Jordyn McIntosh and Blaire Brown.

Yes, time really does fly here, along with genuine character development, which goes right out the window as love, marriage, infidelity, a shocking paternity revelation, a tragic car accident, cancer and other developments (including the unmasking of the “Tamerlane” thief) come marching through this postcard-perfect town with metronomic regularity and all the subtlety of jackbooted stormtroopers.

Plotting is one thing, but it’s not the only thing, as any literary critic will tell you. In “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” deeper meaning is left by the wayside, in a tale with way too much story and not nearly enough life.

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Two stars. Rated PG-13. At theaters. Contains brief strong language, some suggestive material and mature thematic elements. 105 minutes.

Rating guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.

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