In a more market-driven neighborhood of the movie business, Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz's comedy about two retired gents let loose on Iceland would surely be released under the title Geezers Do Geysers. And the modestly budgeted, charming Land Ho! is a caper of sorts, made less in snooty-indie opposition to the Grumpy Old Men franchise than as a fond goosing of the buddy movie, plus kooky innovation.
Shot in 18 days while Stephens was nominally on vacation in Iceland, the film stars her second cousin, Earl Lynn Nelson, who's no actor but who fairly oozes Presence as Mitch, a freshly retired Southern surgeon who springs tickets to Iceland on his former brother-in-law Colin (Australian actor Paul Eenhoorn), a former bank manager and unfulfilled musician. The two have been out of touch for years, and early on, you can see why in their polarized responses to an abstract nude in a trendy Reykjavik art gallery. Let's just say that everything reminds Mitch of sex, and that Colin holds his tongue a lot.
Still, both men are unmoored, having come unstuck from work and marriage. Otherwise they are chalk and cheese. Mitch is big, loud, intrusively friendly and vulgar; as my Cockney mother used to say, what's on his lung is on his tongue. He continually offends Colin, a quiet, thoughtful man with little hope for a future that might rouse him from his resigned funk.
Katz is a talented graduate of the accidental mumblecore "movement," a group of variably gifted young filmmakers who make willfully rumpled films about unemployed graduates stumbling through their uneventful days. Katz's films (Dance Party, USA, Quiet City and the lovely Cold Weather) are loosely held together too, but he's less averse to making stuff happen. And his love for genre keeps busting out of the naturalistic closet in surprising little gasps. Land Ho! walks and talks like a handheld indie, except that it keeps making these funny skips into horror comedy and the musical.
Some may find this gambit a bit arch, but if you can handle the narrative disruption, these little fugues really spice up the adventures, which are mostly to be expected even if they're put in place to reverse cultural expectations. So: disco night with two young female doctoral candidates, one of whom turns down Mitch's proffered spliff because "it takes me to dark places"; a moistly romantic encounter with a free-spirited black Canadian who also happens to be a branch manager.
Well, of course Colin will come alive; of course brash Mitch will grow a little sensitivity and tact; of course they'll do a little dance together on a rocky beach, and sit side by side watching the geysers spurt. All of which looks so much more alluring against a backdrop of wild, soul-stirring rural Iceland.
Then there's the wayward yet telling movement of the camera, a common strategy in all of Katz's films. A young woman tells an extraordinary tale from Jewish mysticism; the camera lingers on her listener, across whose rapt face flits delight and a wistful half-smile of recognition that he is way out of his league. A fond goodbye is filmed from a distance; we can only imagine what those left behind are saying. Sometimes the lens goes blurry, and we must strain to decode what we're looking at.
That indeterminacy nicely counterbalances a tendency to go overboard in pursuit of a joke. What's lovely about Land Ho! is that there are no epiphanies, no transforming events, no therapeutic insights, and best of all no "closure," whatever that may mean. For Mitch and Colin, in their different ways, renewal comes organically from the courage to get out into the world, from engaging and getting into trouble, from courting beauty and danger within arthritic reason. As in another terrific, vastly different movie opening this week, Richard Linklater's Boyhood, life happens in the moments.