Land Ho!

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<i>Land Ho!</i>

Writing about Leonard Cohen’s 2004 album Dear Heather, music critic Robert Christgau, himself in his 60s at the time, made an observation about aging. “I know it’s hard to get a grip on, kids, but people keep getting older,” he wrote. “They don’t just reach some inconceivable benchmark—50 or, God, 60—and stop, Old in some absolute sense. The bones, the joints, the genitals, the juices, the delivery systems, and eventually the mind continue to break down, at an unpredictable pace in unpredictable ways.” The point Christgau was making was that growing up and getting older is an ongoing process, one in which fresh lessons can always be learned while old struggles crop up in new situations.

This truth is reflected gently in Land Ho!, a very breezy, somewhat forgettable comedy about two old pals going on a vacation. Films like Old Joy and Sideways have dealt with male-bonding road trips, tapping into universal truths about masculinity and the difficulty in maintaining friendships. Land Ho! isn’t as profound, which doesn’t mean it’s brainless. Rather, the film has a deeply likable surface, never forcing its poignancy on the viewer. These two amusing codgers have no wisdom to impart because they haven’t yet reached a stage in their lives where they feel like they’ve learned anything.

The film stars Paul Eenhoorn, so affecting in last year’s under-seen This Is Martin Bonner, as Colin, a retired banker reunited with his former brother-in-law, Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson). A lifetime ago, they were married to sisters, but Colin’s wife died and Mitch’s relationship eventually went south. Now with Colin’s second marriage over, Mitch has decided the two men need to pick themselves up and go on an impromptu trip to Iceland. Colin, reserved and depressed, resists, but Mitch, gregarious and a tad coarse, is persuasive.

Land Ho! was written and directed by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz, who previously made films on their own. (Stephens’ Passenger Pigeons and Pilgrim Song featured Nelson, while Katz directed Cold Weather and Quiet City, both of which were shot by Land Ho! cinematographer Andrew Reed.) Katz is loosely affiliated with the mumblecore movement, which is itself a pretty loose affiliation of indie filmmakers generally focused on intimate, stripped-down stories about lost young people. Land Ho! has a similar low-key vibe, emphasizing characters and situations over plot. Colin and Mitch meet up with a young cousin of Mitch’s and also venture out to a hot spring in the middle of nowhere, but none of the incidents could be said to really build to anything momentous. Like a lot of vacations, there are no revelations in Land Ho!, just destinations—and the highlights aren’t the big moments but, instead, the quiet times in between of just hanging out and shooting the breeze.

As traveling companions, the two men fall into familiar types. Colin is the wry straight man to Mitch’s slightly overbearing, backslapping buddy who’s convinced they’re going to find some pretty ladies on their adventures. But the sympathetic humor that runs throughout Land Ho! gets the bulk of its effect from observing how age becomes just another impediment in a life full of obstacles. Although the filmmakers are perhaps too invested in the duo’s quirky Odd Couple rhythms, the story’s subtle running joke is that Colin and Mitch are doing the same thing that a lot of their younger counterparts are: starting new chapters in their lives, trying to get away from it all.

What’s touching is to watch our heroes negotiate those realities later in life. Mitch befriends and gives relationship advice to a honeymooning couple, who initially regard him kindly but quickly realize that he’s the sort of guy who always overstays his welcome. (They’re not wrong: Nelson has an impressive ability to make Mitch just tolerable enough that you’re convinced you couldn’t spend more than a weekend hanging out with him.) Meanwhile, the sad-eyed Colin occasionally flashes the kind of charm and sweetness that probably made him catnip to the opposite sex. (Both in Land Ho! and This Is Martin Bonner, the veteran actor Eenhoorn demonstrates an aptitude for gray-haired resignation that’s melancholy but also witty.)

Land Ho! doesn’t completely avoid cutesiness—more than one slow-motion montage of Colin and Mitch goofing around is probably overkill—but its small insights into people’s stubborn resilience compensates. Nobody has the answers to life’s eternal mysteries, and nobody knows how to find (and hold onto) happiness. Colin and Mitch are on a journey, and so is everyone who crosses their path. Enlightenment may never occur—maybe the most we can hope for are some fond memories.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.

Directors: Martha Stephens, Aaron Katz
Writers: Martha Stephens, Aaron Katz
Starring: Paul Eenhoorn, Earl Lynn Nelson, Karrie Crouse, Elizabeth McKee, Alice Olivia Clarke, Emmsje Gauti
Release Date: July 11, 2014