Around the Bend

"Get me dressed. My family is going out to a fancy place."

It’s easy to forget that aside from being a lunatic, Christopher Walken is also capable of giving complex, nuanced, very real performances. Occasionally — and not too often, mind you — he shows the ability to abandon his persona, create a character, and stick with him. He can use his enviable screen presence to make us laugh, but also to engage us in any number of ways; he’s a world-class actor. What has been even more impressive, perhaps, is his choice of projects: though he will sometimes lend his enormously entertaining brand of insanity to execrable projects (Kangaroo Jack, Joe Dirt), his “real roles” are almost inevitably praiseworthy; Catch Me If You Can earned him an Oscar nod, and Man on Fire won’t, but deserves to.

So if Around the Bend is a rare lead role for Walken, it is also rare for being uninteresting. For maybe the first time ever, Christopher Walken was on screen, and I had no problem looking away. The performance is fine — above par, certainly — it’s the role itself that brings the actor down, and the false, contrived movie that surrounds it. Jordan Roberts’ debut feature is one of those tender, crowd-pleasing “multi-generational” films, except it’s filled with characters who are insufferable, and hurtling toward revelations that aren’t revelatory.

The movie has a fanciful conceit that requires some suspension of disbelief, which is fine if we are rewarded for it. Jason Lair’s (Josh Lucas) grandfather Henry (Michael Caine) successfully predicts the time of his own death, and seizes the opportunity to take his great-grandson (Jonah Bobo) to KFC and devise an elaborate burial ritual that will take his family across the country in search of answers, redemption, togetherness, each other, and all that good stuff. All this, after Jason’s long-absent father and Henry’s son (Walken) returns with cryptic warnings that he will leave again should Jason attempt to dig up “old shit.” Sounds like a Secret, in my opinion.

A few problems. In Jason Lair, Roberts has created a monumentally irritating protagonist, a horrible whiner whose purpose in life is apparently to be uncooperative. Around the Bend turns into a death struggle between this guy and the plot, which would move forward if only the Josh Lucas character would stop pulling the other way. I didn’t much like the plot, as I’ve mentioned, but I must refer to the otherwise unrelated cardinal rule of improv comedy: something new that’s bad is better than something old that’s bad. This film gets bogged down in the same mundanities.

When Roberts finally tips his hand as to where he is going, the film takes on an aura of precise, cynical construction, a plot that would be forced to stay on its course despite not making any sense or being remotely interesting. Characters cannot come to life when their every movement is calculated to lead to a certain outcome come hell or high water. Roberts badly wanted to tell this story, but in his quest to put it on paper and on screen, he has neglected to make it about real people.

What’s worse is that I didn’t care about the plot anyway — not the whimsical, cutesy road trip build-up, not the lame surprises, and certainly not the tear-jerking finale, which is pompously shot in intense close-ups as if we are supposed to be stunned. We could use more small character dramas, but hopefully ones with real characters. Are people going to buy this?

©2004 Eugene Novikov

-- Eugene Novikov

Around the Bend
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