Around the Bend

Around the Bend

USA, 2004. Rated R. 85 minutes.

Cast: Christopher Walken, Josh Lucas, Michael Caine, Jonah Bobo, Glenne Headly, Kathryn Hahn
Writer: Jordan Roberts
Original Music: David Baerwald
Cinematography: Michael Grady
Producers: Elliott Lewitt, Julie Kirkham
Director: Jordan Roberts


Grade: C+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

Read the AboutFilm profile & interview with Christopher Walken.
Read the AboutFilm profile & interview with Josh Lucas .

A  few years ago, David Lynch gave us his atypical The Straight Story , a road movie about an old man journeying across the Midwest on his broken-down lawn mower, in order to visit his ailing brother. Now, first-time director Jordan Roberts borrows the formula, and adds a twist—a family secret that needs to be aired out and forgiven. Thus the title—there's a curve in the road, so it's called Around the Bend.

How is Around the Bend like The Straight Story? The plot is dissimilar enough, but many of the essential elements are there. Leisurely narrative? Check. Warm sentiments? Check. Stealthy sense of humor? Check. Health problems? Check. Absurd traveling conditions? Check. A much-needed familial reconciliation? Check.

Around the Bend opens with a old man lying in bed using a mining hat as a reading light. This is Henry (Michael Caine). He drums along incessantly to his favorite music, driving me in the audience insane long before his grandson Jason (Josh Lucas) bursts into Henry's bedroom demanding that he stop. Henry is a character. We know this because, well, he uses a mining hat as a reading light. And because of the bizarre contents of his cluttered bedroom. And because he observes out loud, with considerable surprise, that his live-in nurse Katrina (Glenne Headly) has unintentionally given him “a woody.”

Christopher Walken and Josh Lucas
Christopher Walken (left) and Josh Lucas have contrasting moods and conflicting personalities in Around the Bend.

Henry breezily talks about his own death and funeral, so much so that Jason's six-year-old son Zach (Jonah Bobo) wants to know whether they will make Henry into a mummy or just stuff him. It's as if Henry is prepared to die on cue, which of course he does quite early in the film, rather preposterously, and taking with him most of the film's charm. But first, enter Christopher Walken.

Walken plays Henry's estranged son Turner (Jason's father). He shows up out of the blue in their living room, in his bizarre Walken way, and looking none too well. “You're not dead anymore,” observes Zach, and Turner certainly looks like he just got up out of a coffin. Henry is overjoyed. Jason is not.

When Turner announces that he plans to leave as abruptly as he came, Henry engineers a plan to effect a reconciliation between son and grandson. This involves forcing them to go on a road trip together (with Zach, too) in order to fulfill Henry's dying wishes—as well as the terms of his inheritance.

Now an odd (mostly unexplained) reversal occurs. Turner enthusiastically takes on Henry's list of tasks, while Jason, who it seemed would sacrifice anything for Henry, resists. During these polarized father/son confrontations, Turner delivers a clunker of a line—“Henry never asked me to do anything in his entire life!” Unlikely. Henry is Turner's father, so he must have asked Turner to do a million things in his life—to eat his peas for example, or to put away the Tonka trucks, or to listen to him when he's talking, goddammit! Anyway, the road movie that ensues involves numerous arguments, numerous visits to KFC, and the requisite shot of Chistopher Walken dancing.

As acting giants go, Walken and Caine could not be more different. Though he can play cold, Caine is a warm, effusive actor, always consistent and reliable. Even his American accent is consistently shaky. Walken, on the other hand, is always on the edge, improvising, and unexpected, even in a rare straight dramatic role such as this one. On screen Walken and Caine are like oil and water, but it works, given their characters' estrangement. Lucas, however, is the protagonist, and therefore it is he who must display the most range—nurturing with his grandfather, fatherly with his son, but reduced to an immature, angry boy with his own father. By holding his own opposite Walken and Caine, and playing well off both, Lucas can claim quite an accomplishment for his burgeoning career.

In a time of growing budgets and movies made by committee, small independent films provide increasingly revitalizing alternatives to the Hollywood formulas. Sometimes a film is too small for its own good, though. Around the Bend has outstanding acting and a short running time, and still the story runs thin. In the early going, the film is a bit too precious to earn the dramatic revelations that lurk around that bend in the road, which aren't all that revelatory anyway. Perhaps with a slightly more ambitious story and a larger budget, the film might stick with you a bit longer. The money shouldn't have been lacking. Like Windex in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, KFC didn't pay a dime to be featured so prominently in Around the Bend, and yet KFC could justifiably have been asked to finance the whole thing.

Review © October 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

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