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Review: 'Land Ho!' offers understated charm and comedy
Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson shine in Sundance favorite
Fortunately, it isn't my job to figure out what Sony Pictures Classics is going to do with its brand-spanking-new Sundance pickup "Land Ho!"
The part of me that attempts to ponder the commercial possibilities of film festival acquisitions looks at "Land Ho!" and sees a tonally challenging international roadtrip comedy about a couple senior citizens played by a pair of stars who aren't just unknowns to mainstream audiences, they're barely-knowns even to art house snobs.
Fortunately, that's not a hat that I'm ever called upon to wear, at least not in practical terms.
All I know is that "Land Ho!" plays.
It's a funny and moving film about aging, but it's also a wacky journey across Iceland with two characters who are instantly likable and ultimately quite lovable. And with Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson, it's a perfectly cast buddy romp.
Getting audiences to see Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz' writing-directing collaboration won't be easy -- "Land Ho!" is playing in the NEXT program at Sundance and up until yesterday, it was flying way under the radar -- but once you're watching, it's hard not to be taken in my charm.
Mitch and Colin are former brothers-in-law who couldn't be more different. Mitch (Nelson) is an unapologetically brash surgeon from New Orleans, while Colin (Eenhoorn) is a reserved Aussie. Reuniting in the aftermath of Colin's divorce, Mitch surprises his chum with first-class plane tickets to Iceland, where they'll celebrate Scandinavian women, partake in the local food culture, see a few geysers and generally get their grooves back.
The two men are uneasy bedfellows, guys who never had anything in common other than the women they were once married to, but have a clear affection that is, as much as anything else, born of loneliness, of the solitude that comes from reaching a certain age and facing each new day without employment, wives and the day-to-day presence of close friends or adult children.
It's not hard to find antecedents for "Land Ho!" At this Sundance alone, you have Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan reuniting for "The Trip to Italy," in which they bicker, impersonate and eat their way across another European country. So if you take "The Trip" by way of "Grumpy Old Men," with just a little dose of "Dumb and Dumber" or "Twins, and you have at least a hugely reductive way of understanding what Stephens and Katz are going for here.
The two filmmakers, who are no strangers to the festival circuit with at least four SXSW films on their resumes, have never worked together, but their sensibilities blend seamlessly in what plays mostly as a series of episodes and travelogue moments that advance to two main characters toward only understated confrontations and small personal revelations. There's the imaginary hacky studio version of this premise, probably starring Jack Nicholson and Ian McKellan, that's full of wacky supporting characters, saggy butt humor and increasingly rambunctious reminders that seniors can still love sexy time. While the characters make jokes about their age, Stephens and Katz aren't taking any potshots. The fact that "Land Ho!" has a running time of 95 minutes and doesn't include a single Viagra joke verges on miraculous.
Most of the humor comes organically from the slightly strange trip that Mitch and Colin are on. Why Iceland? The answer is that Mitch seems amused by the idea and the filmmakers keep finding different things that interest them in very clear-eyed ways. There are waterfalls and hot springs and molecular gastronomy restaurants and modern art galleries. The main characters and cinematographer Andrew Reed take in the beauty and the geographical difference with the same amused appreciation. With the exception of a glow-stick pushing local at a Reykjavik night club, "Land Ho!" avoids the fetishizing of deadpan Scandinavian Other-ness that has captivated folks like Jim Jarmusch and the guys who make "Lilyhammer," as well as plenty of native filmmakers.
Instead of introducing strange cab drivers, mysterious Asian locals and bearded eccentrics, Stephens and Katz concentrate on the two main characters, who make up a natural and comedically fertile dyad.
Eenhoorn, who had a big breakthrough last Sundance with "This Is Martin Bonner," has the character with the closest thing to an arc, while also having the more reactive of the two main roles. For at least two-thirds of the movie, he's somewhat along for Mitch's ride, mixing bemusement with understated enjoyment of what looks to have been a fun getaway.
As I haven't seen Stephens' "Passenger Pigeons," Nelson is a total newcomer for me. The press notes suggest there are autobiographical elements to this character, but I'd never want to imply that Nelson's playing himself if that would take anything away from what is a marvelously gregarious performance. Nelson may not be an "actor," but as good as Katz and Stephens' dialogue may be, the biggest laughs come from Nelson's line-readings. Thanks to Eenhoorn's subtlety, Nelson has lots of room to go big, creating exactly the balance you need for a good comic pairing.
While most of "Land Ho!" really is just Nelson and Eenhoorn going head-to-head, Karrie Crouse and Elizabeth McKee are both great in the small segment of the movie that finds Colin and Mitch hosting two young ladies in Reykjavik.
Looseness is its greatest attribute, but "Land Ho!" becomes a little too slack as Colin and Mitch begin sightseeing in the Icelandic countryside in a bulky Hummer. Still, the movie rebounds nicely in the end, with some extra momentum coming from composer Keegan Dewitt and some excellent musical cues that may lead to a Big Country renaissance.
I think that "Land Ho!" is a little movie that will probably work better the more it sneaks up on you, which becomes less likely as its profile rises. Dodge the growing hype and you'll be charmed by Stephens and Katz and enthralled by Nelson and Eenhoorn.