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Told by what's said and what's left unsaid

Two old buddies, grown distant, take an impromptu camping trip. Read their faces to understand their minds.

October 13, 2006|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

For all kinds of reasons, the narratives that play out in people's heads -- transitory epiphanies and realizations that combine to form evanescent meaning -- don't often survive untouched the passage into movies (which mostly concern themselves with supplanting them anyway). Documenting barely perceptible shifts in attitude, recording subtle changes in love, capturing the mood of an era -- these tasks are generally considered better suited to prose, where a pang of annoyance or a waft of melancholy can be scaled or spelunked to their heights or depths and still feel like fleeting private experiences.

Movies, by nature and habit, exteriorize what is inherently interior, too often as if cracking an egg with a ball-peen hammer. Part of what makes Kelly Reichardt's spare but revelatory "Old Joy" such a pleasure to watch is its resolute faith in the power of projection. The film, shot by Peter Sillen on Super 16, is content to hold back and observe as two longtime but no longer very close friends embark on a spur-of-the-moment weekend camping trip. When the conversation flags, it gazes out the window at the passing landscape. Miniaturist in its level of detail and evocatively abstract, "Old Joy" captures the weary mood of a generation that's crested its peak along with an era, quietly making a case for how well suited film can be to capturing the finer points of human interaction while preserving their mystery.

Adapted from a short story by Jonathan Raymond, "Old Joy" is a meditation on change that identifies transformation where others might see stasis. Now in their mid-30s, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham) aren't quite ready to admit to themselves or each other how divergent their paths have become. Mark is married and expecting a child. He has a modest but suitably hip house in Portland, a big yellow dog and a Volvo station wagon in which to listen grimly to political talk radio and feel powerless.

Kurt, as he says, has never gotten himself into a situation he couldn't get out of. But despite his penchant for flaunting it at every opportunity, his freedom sounds like a trap, a nightmare of never-ending adolescence. Reichardt, who co-wrote the script with Raymond, deals with the emotional distance between friends stuck in a car in the way nature intended -- by staring out the window. The short bursts of conversation, mostly incidental anecdotes about other people that seem to have the opposite effect of bringing Mark and Kurt together, are strung together with long ribbons of plaintive Northwest scenery -- the glum streets of Portland, the gloomier outskirts, then the beautiful if slightly lugubrious Cascade mountains -- and a melancholic industrial score by Yo La Tengo.

As they drive toward one of Kurt's many mystical spots, Mark listens to his stories with an expression that seems to accommodate every contradictory emotion at once, as though he'd hate to discriminate. The news that Yogi, a former roommate who once stiffed them on the rent, is now jumping over bonfires, sleeping around and otherwise expressing his joyfulness in California, for instance, is met with two words and a half-smile that might express either admiration or, more likely, its polar opposite. As he squints incredulously and not always kindly at his friend, it's hard to tell what percentage of Mark's reaction is scorn and what percentage is envy, just as it's hard to tell how much of Kurt's rhapsodizing about his pointless existence is pure provocation. With his haphazardly buttoned shirt that rides up on his pot-belly, Kurt looks like a bald, bearded toddler -- which is either endearing or repulsive. It's a measure of how finely drawn and well acted both characters are that your sympathy shuffles between them like a weary old dog whose owners aren't speaking.

Passive-aggressive and rigidly laid-back, Mark and Kurt are fine specimens (same genus, different species) of a type of millennial masculinity that flourished in the soggier Western regions at the end of the 20th century, and they will be familiar to anyone who ever spent time in post-hippie Gen-X enclaves like Seattle, Portland or San Francisco in the 1990s. Mark is first seen meditating in his yard and next seen trying to cajole some kind of absolvitory blessing from his pregnant wife when he decides to go away for the weekend. (His wife, played by Tanya Smith, accuses him of making her "go through this thing of me letting you off the hook." You almost wish they'd just yell at each other and haul out a rolling pin instead.) Kurt, meanwhile, extols the "transformative" powers of spending his life drifting between regimentally countercultural places like Big Sur and Ashland. "I'm at a whole new place now, really," he says, looking like someone who has been "at" the same place forever.


'Old Joy'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Mild profanity, drug use

Kino International. Director Kelly Reichardt. Writers Jonathan Raymond, Reichardt. Based on the story by Raymond. Producers Neil Kopp, Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy, Anish Savjani. Director of photography Peter Sillen. Editor Kelly Reichardt. Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Playhouse, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; Fallbrook, 6731 Fallbrook Ave., West Hills.

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