"Around the Bend" is the kind of pan-generational, single-sex, multi-hankie family picture that would have starred Shirley MacLaine and Julia Roberts had it been made 20 years ago. Instead, it features Michael Caine as a dying, but still chipper, patriarch; Christopher Walken as a prodigal son who shows up just in time for redemption; Josh Lucas as the tense, resentful son he left behind; and Jonah Bobo as the saucer-eyed 6-year-old who takes it all in. It's got a desert road trip, a beat-up VW bus, a '60s soul soundtrack and Walken dancing around a campfire, unbidden. It's about fathers and sons and unbreakable bonds and sad, shameful pasts. Gentlemen, it's a male chick flick -- "The Dirty Secrets of the Ya-Ya Brotherhood."
Inspired by writer-director Jordan Roberts' relationship with his absent father, and boasting a solid, if oddly matched, cast, "Around the Bend" aims for affecting, but inexplicably settles for zany. What might have been a simple story about a father-son-grandson reunion winds up getting bogged down with more useless ornamentation than a Douglas fir in December.
Henry Lair (Caine) is a former archeologist who lives with his grandson, Jason (Lucas), his great-grandson, Zach (Bobo) and his nutty Danish nurse, Katrina (Glenne Headly), in a house cluttered with Indian artifacts. Henry, who has spent his life "digging up old [stuff]," is now spending his final days trying to drum up alternative funeral options that won't involve going in the ground.
Henry's hopes for reuniting his tribe are temporarily stoked when Turner (Walken), Jason's estranged father, shows up at the Lair lair. (As you may have surmised, you could drive a nail through a stud with the symbolism.) Henry happily treats the family to a "fancy" dinner at the local KFC, but the tension between Turner and Jason is thick, and Turner plans to leave in the morning.
Henry, though, hasn't spent his life digging up Indian burial grounds for nothing. He's picked up tricks. Next thing we know, he's pulled the mother of all manipulations and given his son and grandson no choice but to extend the visit and embark on an emotional treasure hunt through the American Southwest.
The result is a weird amalgam of Native American mysticism, hippie revivalism and product placement. The elements are too disparate to hang together, and even minor details feel hollow. There's the contrivance of the four boys calling each other by their first names, for instance. And the fact that Jason's wife allegedly left him to "paint in Nepal" -- which seems like an incongruous, unlikely and really dated thing to do, until little Zach chirps, "She's painting in Nipple!" and you realize the unconvincing back-story was all for one, not-funny joke. (When we finally see her, she looks like the last person on Earth who would leave a banker for some paints and a yak-hair brush.)
The Danish nurse, meanwhile, is such a pastiche of studied kookiness and Nordic cliches Copenhagen could break off diplomatic ties and it wouldn't be an overreaction. Katrina sleeps with a portrait of the Queen of Denmark above her bed, watches slasher movies "to relax," spends most of the movie duded up like a waitress in a Midwestern pancake emporium and says things like, "He can't come to the door because he's dead."
It's too bad, because the film had an opportunity to provide career-capping performances for Caine and Walken. Alexander Payne's glorious "About Schmidt" did it for Nicholson, and proved that it's possible to take a character late in life, send him on a road trip of self-discovery and find something truly original and sublime there.
But "Around the Bend's" misguided, ultimately insecure script fails its actors, who nonetheless put in fine performances. Walken, in particular, stands out as a man who has spent his life trying to outrun his guilt. Opting against the platter-eyed staccato he's known for, he keeps his hair on end but his personality grounded.
The movie wants to ride around on Jason's shoulders, but Lucas, though handsome and likable, is somewhat too bland to carry it off.
Not that his underdeveloped character does him any favors. Jason's life, as written, is a catalog of horrors: His mother died in a car accident when he was 2, he walks with a limp, his father abandoned him, his wife took off --and yet, if anything, the film, and Jason's family, seem to suggest his real problem is that he's boring.
Strangely, his is. "Around the Bend" may take its title from a euphemism for crazy, but it feels heavily sedated. Despite repeated references to excavation and past eras, it doesn't dig very deep. Instead, it gets distracted by all manner of shiny objects and taken off course. It's a road trip that goes all over the place but gets nowhere.
'Around the Bend'
MPAA rating: R for language
Times guidelines: Mild sexual situations, horror-movie violence on a small screen in the background
Michael Caine...Henry Lair
Christopher Walken...Turner Lair
Josh Lucas...Jason Lair
Jonah Bobo...Zach Lair
Warner Independent Pictures presents. A Kirkham-Lewitt Production. Directed by Jordan Roberts from his original screenplay. Producers Elliott Lewitt and Julie Kirkham. Executive producer Ronald G. Smith. Director of photography Michael Grady. Production designer Sarah Knowles. Editor Francoise Bonnot, A.C.E. Costume designer Alix Friedberg. Composer David Baerwald.