Land Ho!: Sundance Review

A gently amusing odyssey with two old gents on the road in Iceland.

Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz make a buddy movie about two seventyish gents who take an unplanned trip.

The road movie is refitted for a charming spin around scenic Iceland in Land Ho!, a serio-comedy of very modest ambition but a distinct character of its own. At its most reductive a buddy movie about two seventyish gents who take an unplanned trip with the intent of “getting our grooves back,” this first collaboration between writer-directors Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz offers pleasure all the way but leaves the lingering feeling that it could have pushed itself further, both dramatically and comedically. Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics at Sundance, this is the sort of disarming out-of-nowhere surprise that could catch the fancy of a healthy slice of the specialized audience and also become one of those occasional films that lures senior audiences into theaters.

Befitting classic comic tradition, the script throws together two temperamental opposites, the expansive, lewd and life-embracing Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and the taciturn, unassertive and watchful Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), two ex-brothers-in-law with time on their hands and in need of a pick-me-up.

Mitch, a well-off surgeon already fed up with retirement, is a big fellow with big appetites, a guy who likes women, wine and weed and whose irrepressible suggestive remarks to and about the opposite sex marks him as a dinosaur in a politically correct world. Colin, a former French horn player and banker, habitually keeps his own council and has to be prodded by Mitch to accept his invitation to a first-class, all-expenses-paid trip to Iceland for a chance of scenery.

And mighty good scenery it is, too. Countering the trend of indie as well as local directors to exoticize the island and its inhabitants with a sort of stilted, deadpan humor, the directors show the place just as the well-heeled travelers experience it, from the spare modern elegance of Reykjavik’s  first-class restaurants and hotels of to the striking natural splendors of the coast and countryside.

Uttering words of wisdom, blunt remarks and anatomical observations with a deep Kentucky drawl that charms and takes the edge off, Mitch is antsy in retirement and not disposed to consider himself out of the game. Although he’s not saying, the suspicion persists that he was forced to resign from his job. He and Colin were wed to sisters, although both marriages have ended, and Mitch takes it upon himself to pull Colin out of the doldrums and get his blood running again.

PHOTOS: The Scene at Sundance Film Festival 2014

In the city, the two old boys are joined by Mitch’s cousin Ellen and her friend Janet (Karrie Crouse and Elizabeth McKee), both PhD candidates at Columbia. Gregarious Mitch, whose running comments about everything are generally amusing and never banal, takes the gang to the city’s best fish restaurant and then to a nightclub where the guys are at least forty years older than anyone else, but he can’t get the others to share his reefers or loosen up to his standards. He’s a born libertine and a shoot-from the-hip philosopher.

Once the gals take off, the two adventurers rent a big Hummer and head for Iceland’s natural wonders, including The Golden Circle, sensational waterfalls, the geyser (to which Mitch immediately attaches heavy sexual connotations) the black beaches and the blue lagoon. They encounter a couple on their honeymoon, get so lost wandering away from their remote motel one night that they have to sleep outside and, over the course of things, open up a bit more about their lives and feelings. Nothing that goes deep, but things that touch, sometimes poignantly, on the prospect of being put out to pasture and how to move ahead and not be encumbered by the past.

It goes, more or less, how the great majority of trips like this would go -- pleasantly, with mild highlights and chance encounters, but not the way most movies are constructed to be dramatically eventful or exaggeratedly comic. The tendency with this sort of material, especially in Hollywood’s hands, would be to turn it into an outright farce, along the lines of Grumpy Old Men or The Bucket List, and it’s easy to imagine the remake rights to this being snapped up and tailored for the likes of Jack Nicholson, Steve Martin, Tommy Lee Jones, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Harrison Ford or any number of other big older stars.

Land Ho! is appealing for not going the route of easy gags and dumbed-down humor, content instead to ride on Nelson’s abundant personality and the slow-burn gravitas of Eeenhoorn, who scored last year in The Return of Martin Bonner. Not a professional actor, Nelson appeared in Stephens’s two solo features, Passenger Pigeon (2010) and Pilgrim Song (2012). For his part, Katz on his own previously directed Dance Party USA (2006), Quiet City (2007) and Cold Weather (2010).

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)
Opens: Autumn 2014 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production: Gamechanger Films
Cast: Paul Eenhoorn, Earl Lynn Nelson, Karrie Crouse, Elizabeth McKee,
Alice Olivia Clarke, Emmsje Gauti
Directors: Martha Stephens, Aaron Katz
Screenwriters: Martha Stephens, Aaron Katz
Producers: Mynette Louie, Sara Murphy, Christina Jennings
Executive producers: David Gordon Green, Julie Parker Benello, Dan
Cogan, Geralyn Dreyfous, Wendy Ettinger
Director of photography: Andrew Reed
Editor: Aaron Katz
Music: Keegan DeWitt
96 minutes