Fans of the local film scene may remember Martha Stephens’ Passenger Pigeons (2010), which was produced and co-edited by Asheville filmmaker Joe Chang. Now — with co-writer-director Aaron Katz — she brings us Land Ho! — her first work from a mainstream distributor (Sony Pictures Classics). I don’t know that it’s exactly more ambitious than her earlier work — except for the fact that it mostly takes place in Iceland — but it’s certainly slicker, and it probably has a broader appeal. It is, however, cut from the same cloth — not in the least because it’s built around Stephens’ cousin, Earl Lynn Nelson (apparently playing a kind of variation on himself), who has only ever appeared in her movies. Here, Nelson is paired with more seasoned Australian actor Paul Eenhoorn in what is essentially an odd couple road movie — the difference being that the road in this most venerable of American sub-genres is in Iceland, and our travelers are pushing at least 70. The results are an amiable, somewhat rambling film that’s certainly not going to change your life but does provide a pleasing 95 minutes at the movies.
Since the genre requires it, the two men are pretty much polar opposites. Nelson plays Mitch, a retired, reasonably affluent, garrulous and somewhat crude surgeon. Eenhoorn is Colin, a much more reserved and proper retiree with money worries. The only connection between the two is the somewhat nebulous one of being ex-brothers-in-law. Mitch — the one with money — insists on bankrolling a trip to Iceland for them both. Mitch is also the kind of person who doesn’t take no for an answer, so all of Colin’s protestations are for nothing. (Of course, if he didn’t cave in and go, there’d be no movie.) That’s the setup, and it’s pretty much the story when you get down to it, but what’s done within those confines is what counts. And while nothing that happens is all that surprising, it becomes increasingly likable and trenchant as it progresses.
As things start off, Mitch is more tiresome than likable. The “shock” effect of his pot smoking and sexual references only carries the film so far. At first, it’s much easier to like and identify with Colin, who is slightly embarrassed by his former brother-in-law. But as things go on, it becomes increasingly clear that most of Mitch’s nonstop talk is a bluff and his outrageousness a kind of protective persona — that and using the excuse of age to say things he probably spent his life carefully not saying. Much like this week’s other indie opener, The One I Love, there’s perhaps too much talk. The difference is that the talk in Land Ho! is used to mask feelings and stave off reality, where in The One I Love the opposite is true. There’s no doubt that The One I Love is by far the more adventurous film, but I’m not at all sure it’s the more pertinent one. The films reflect two different sides of the indie coin.
Don’t expect blinding revelations here. There aren’t any. It’s basically all about getting to know these two old duffers, who are far outside their comfort zones in the striking landscapes and utter foreignness of Iceland. Surprises are in short supply, too. The fact that Mitch ends up much less the ladies’ man than his pose suggests is virtually a given — yet this doesn’t keep Colin’s encounter with a much younger Canadian hiker (Alice Olivia Clarke) from being wholly charming. And Mitch’s reaction to it is refreshingly laid back. (It’s also something of a slap in the face to the casual ageism of modern mainstream American film.) Is this a great film? No, it’s hardly that, but, within its modest aims, it’s a very good one. Rated R for some language, sexual references and drug use.