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Land Ho! is a How Grandpa Got His Groove Back for the geezer set, a buddy road trip through Iceland, starring two divorced men with a combined age of 150 years. The writer-directors, Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz, are 30 and 34, respectively, young enough to be their leading men’s grandchildren but just old enough to empathize with their wrinkles. Ringleader Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) is a rich, reluctantly retired doctor who fancies himself the Joe Francis of septuagenarians. (And his taste in women doesn't skew much older.) As for the polite but prickly Colin (Paul Eenhoorn, the late-blooming talent of This is Martin Bonner), he’s aware that he’s merely a freeloading passenger in Mitch’s mission but quickly shakes off any guilt about his companionship having been bought.
For much of its running time, Land Ho! indulges Mitch as he talks about his penis, Colin’s penis, and things that look like penises, which up above the Arctic Circle encompasses lighthouses, geysers, and more. In one early sequence, the big-talking lech hopes that he can even use his penis on his much younger cousin-once-removed, a Ph.D. student on her own vacation with one of her female friends. In our seats, we squirm with agony, in part because we’re aware that a sex romp hasn’t crossed the ladies’ minds, and because we’re embarrassed by Mitch’s self-delusional belief that he can woo the girls by plying them with new clothes and fancy wine. But we’re also not sure if Stephens and Katz will indulge his fantasies. Thankfully, they don’t, and as it swats down our fears of go-get-em-gramps wish fulfillment, the film settles into an off-kilter rhythm as though it had simply unleashed Nelson and Eenhoorn in the snow to riff their conversational jazz.
While that never-quite-attempted seduction sequence builds like a Champagne bottle that’s about to explode — especially during an anxious moment when Mitch tucks his blackout-drunk niece in bed just beyond where we can babysit his behavior — in the end, it, like the rest of the film, is just a gentle fizzle. Land Ho! feints toward pathos and perversity, only to decide that it’s better off giving us abridged, postcard emotions. Having essentially scrawled “Friendship good, incestuous date rape bad,” Stephens and Katz then steer the plot to Pleasantville with only a few awkward detours.
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Land Ho! was one of the crowd-pleasers at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, though I’ll admit I find the adoration mystifying. There must be two sweet spots of maturity for whom the comedy works: older audiences happy to see their generation living it up on-screen, and the newly middle-aged, who are fearful that they’ve become too old to be cool. To the latter, Land Ho! thrusts a beer in their hand and promises that they, too, have decades of life ahead. It’s a palliative, a calmer, a welcome toast at a celebration of aging — the one event that everyone who lives must attend.
As the buttoned-up Colin, the Felix of the relationship, Eenhoorn is such a gift that he almost convinces us that the film has more depth. He holds the screen with an unassuming humility, the kind of power Fred MacMurray used to have, and it’s not just his wrinkles that make his performances here and in Martin Bonner feel lived-in — it’s how he appears to be so comfortable before a camera that it’s as if he has no idea he’s being taped. It’s a shame that Eenhoorn is only now becoming an indie cinema name but better late than never. He gets what Land Ho! is up to, and he plays his crank with the affectionate, tough, self-mocking tone of a skeptic reluctantly pounding the bongos at a drum circle.
The film slowly becomes a valentine to Colin — at points, the wound-up Mitch seems to exist only to bathe him in a more forgiving glow. But it’s the messiness of Mitch, and Nelson’s Foghorn Leghorn portrayal of him, that gets, incidentally perhaps, what the movie should do: ask uncomfortable questions, even if the directors aren’t sure how to answer. Stephens and Katz can’t decide if Mitch’s hunger for drugs, booze, girls, and nice suits is something to laud or lampoon. Instead, they dismiss his wants as if he were a toddler. He can’t even convince people to take a hit off his joint. Mitch’s aging body isn’t the trap — it’s his companions. Instead of comic relief, I found these scenes chilling: how ghastly if the reward for living a full life is outliving everyone fun?
If you’re keeping score, this is the second time in seven months after The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in which the cinema has shipped a man to Iceland to find himself. It used to postmark them to mainland Europe, where they’d presumably find culture along with a sloe-eyed brunette. But there’s something in the Viking nation’s raw and impassive landscapes that seems right for readjusting our modern era, all those snow peaks and alien fields, which strip away the headaches of civilization and shrinky-dink whatever’s happening on Twitter. Yet I prefer the uncool charms of Walter Mitty, a film that dared to make big mistakes. Land Ho! is so eager to be liked that in the final minutes it throws away all the dull honesty that came before and slaps on a scene in which bikinied girls eye-fuck the old men as they strut through a hot springs in borrowed bathrobes. Groovy, grandpa. Groovy.
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