Cramming Catharsis

While there are some nice moments, 'Around the Bend' bombs because of uneven, forced attempts to warm the heart

Around the Bend is a "small" film with "big" stars. Often, this is a recipe for disaster, as big stars usually take on small films only if they have something to prove, and if that's the case, they tend to prove it all over the screen.

Here, however, the performances are not the problem. Michael Caine, who's good even in awful movies like The Hand and The Swarm and The Man Who Would Be in The Hand and The Swarm, plays Henry Lair, who, like Michael Caine, is old enough to be able to cross streams with death.

Henry lives with his grandson Jason, a banking executive played by Josh Lucas. Henry had to raise Jason when Jason's dad, Turner, become so weird and strung-out on heroin that he could only be played by Christopher Walken. Thirty years earlier, Turner decided that he'd be better off going where he could ball chicks and ride his machine and not get hassled by the man, and neither Jason nor Henry have seen him since.

On the eve of Henry's death, though, Turner reappears in order to create some father-son bonding and a really contrived plot and also an opportunity for Christopher Walken to do his Christopher Walken routine one more time before it's declared illegal by the anti-cool police.

The contrivance is that Henry, knowing he's about to die, fills a series of Kentucky Fried Chicken take-out bags with clues and maps that are supposed to lead Turner and Jason on a cross-country trip of self-discovery and special, heartwarming moments of bonding and catharsis and clichés.

Thus, they get in an old VW van with Jason's son Zach--who's so cute he was probably created when The Teddy Bear Factory had that industrial explosion that dumped 400 tons of radioactive Cute-o-gen 256 into the water system near the Hollywood Home for Aspiring Infant Stars--and drive into the photogenic Southwest.

This is not the worst idea for a movie, because the worst idea for a movie is to have John Travolta make a film based on an L. Ron Hubbard book. But it's not a great idea for a movie.

Still, it would be more bearable if someone had written dialogue that sounded like something someone might say, rather than like what a freshman writing student would puke onto the page on day one of her "Wishing I Was Raymond Carver" class. For example, the following exchange actually takes place between grandpa Henry and grandson Jason:

Henry: "Some of us are more broken than others."

Jason: "What do you mean?"

Henry: "Families carry each other."

I have found that in real conversations, a person tends to respond to what was just said, and that people rarely speak in platitudes. In films, however, people frequently speak in these sorts of non-sequitors, and it's supposed to be deep or something.

Which is only half of the problem with Around the Bend. The bigger issue is its insistence on warming your heart. Really, personally, I don't mind having my heart warmed. I just prefer that it be consensual. What I don't want is for a filmmaker to tear my heart out of my chest and then pop it in a microwave oven that's been set on high.

Which is exactly how first-time director Jordan Roberts treats the audience's collective heart in much of his film. This is too bad, because there's actually some clever dialogue mixed in with the schmaltz, and some smartly touching moments mixed in with the manipulation.

All this makes Around the Bend a tremendously uneven film, since the bad parts are so sappy and trite that they seem to have been fished out of some toxic waste dump where the remains of rejected Spielberg and Capra scripts have been allowed to breed monstrous offspring, but the good parts are reasonably clever.

Or maybe it's just that they're voiced by Christopher Walken. Walken is so fun to watch and listen to that he should just have a TV show where he reads the transcripts of the presidential debates in his own weird cadence. I'd pay to see that.

But I wouldn't pay to see Around the Bend. It's just too hell-bent on manipulation for its own good, and it doesn't put enough effort into being original.

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