Review of the opening film of Reykjavík International Film Festival (RIFF) 2014.
The plot is simple: Two old guys take a trip to Iceland and go sightseeing. That is a good enough plot for a vacation, but what about a film?
Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) are former brothers-in-law, having been married to sisters. While Mitch’s marriage failed, Colin’s wife died. Now, pushing seventy, Mitch persuades the reluctant Colin to travel to Iceland, all expenses paid.
Why Iceland? Why not? One has to do something to prove to oneself that one isn’t dead yet.
While in Reykjavík, they meet Mitch’s twenty-something cousin Ellen (Karrie Crouse) and her friend Janet (Elizabeth McKee). Together, they have dinner at a fancy restaurant where the modern Nordic cuisine—which gets a lot of screen time—is actually more interesting than the conversation that seems not to have been scripted at all. It’s just as if your dinner with distant relatives you rarely meet had been recorded.
Janet, with her eyes wide open and her annoyingly shy smile, seems to have a crush on both of the old guys but eventually, and surprisingly so, tells Colin that he reminds her of her father. Her behavior is as much of a puzzle as the girls’ appearance in the film.
Actually, the reason might be found in writer-director Martha Stephens’ own experiences. At the Q&A after the film’s opening screening of RIFF on September 23, she revealed that Nelson, who plays Mitch, is her cousin. Did she write herself into her own film through the roles of Ellen and Janet?
Be that as it may, after the girls say goodbye, the film finally seems to get going: Mitch and Colin travel the well-trodden Golden Circle in their black Hummer rental, including some detours. (Luckily for viewers and aspiring tourists, the names of all the stops are displayed on the screen so that your travel planning for next year should go smoothly.)
At the Q&A, Stephens claimed that she had always wanted to travel to Iceland because the country is so pretty. Did that convince her to choose it as a location for her film?
While it is, of course, perfectly legitimate to write about things you like and have experience with when making a film, you might need more than simply put together random ideas—they should in some respect fit together and form a homogenous story.
Stephens also stated that to her, the landscape functions as a character in the film and is just as important as the other characters.
If this were true, then Iceland would be a rather dull companion, sitting prettily in the background and showing her beauty without ever getting a word in edgewise over boisterous Mitch.
Mitch is a loud guy with a Southern drawl who feasts on marihuana and dirty jokes. This leads to many cringe-worthy moments, for example when he tries to give marriage advice to a young couple on their honeymoon.
Shown as up-close as every other scene in this movie (fittingly enough showing old people with degenerating vision), the couple’s embarrassed faces make you shrink back in your own seat. Why doesn’t the old lecher just leave?
However, bit by bit, there are some scenes in which this old lecher shows that he might have a good heart and you might, if not come to like him, at least sympathize with him.
When Janet doesn’t feel well, Mitch, being an ex-surgeon, takes out his stethoscope and checks her heartbeat. You almost wait for some sort of sexually-charged comment, but he’ actually proves to be the gentlest doctor, reassuring the young woman that she’s all right. Bit by bit, you realize that he might just be very lonely and tries to hide his feelings by acting the way he does.
Colin is Mitch’s badly-needed opposite—soft-spoken with a gentle smile that once in a while turns into a lost gaze, plainly showing his own loneliness. However, with a bit of nudging, he becomes a good travel partner for Mitch. They trade family memories and movie trivia while on the road, then dance in their old-man slacks on black beaches and take funny pictures of their bottoms, for once making the audience enjoying their journey with them. In a hot spring in Landmannalaugar, Colin even finds some romance with the beautiful and much younger Nadine (Alice Olivia Clarke).
Apart from some minor quarrels between ‘Marihuana Mitch’ and ‘Cranky Colin,’ there is no big breakthrough moment that would give the story a much-needed twist. Instead of an elaborate plot, there is a certain dynamic between the two old-but-not-yet-dead buddies and a laugh here and there that keep the film going at a steady but far from exciting rate.
They finally end up, like the good tourists they are, in the Blue Lagoon, shedding their bathrobes to join some Icelandic girls with cocktails.
Exciting enough for a vacation, yes, but sadly not for a film.
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