Ten minutes into “Land Ho!,” viewers who still haven’t warmed up to the character of Mitch would be advised to sneak out and get a refund while there’s time. The comically boorish protagonist of the film is no more charming once you get to know him, and there’s no formulaic third-act redemption in store. Mitch remains like one of those embarrassing uncles whose behavior must be tolerated lest it ruin the holidays.
He’s also the film’s main attraction, despite the fact that this road-trip buddy tale plays out against scenic Icelandic vistas other films have used to great effect. Here, geysers and vast cascades are just background for a story of two retirees trying to have some fun before they’re too old.
Mitch is played by Earl Lynn Nelson, an untrained actor who happens to be the second cousin of Martha Stephens, who wrote and directed the film with Aaron Katz. Paul Eenhoorn, an Australian actor with many credits to his name, plays Colin, Mitch’s former brother-in-law who hasn’t seen him in the years since divorce broke family ties.
We meet them as Mitch, a surgeon with plenty of disposable income, is giving his old friend an unexpected invitation: He has just bought a pair of first-class tickets to Iceland, and intends to pay all the expenses for a trip that will shake the cobwebs off their increasingly lonely lives. Reluctantly, Colin agrees.
Like his character, Nelson is a surgeon from the South, and everything from the faux-dramatic way he reads Lonely Planet blurbs aloud to the folksy vulgarity of his descriptions of women — the most memorable of which can’t be printed here — suggests that the real man’s personality inspired the film. Stephens even fictionalizes her relationship to him. Not long after the friends settle into Reykjavík, Mitch gets an e-mail saying that his own 20-something second cousin Ellen (Karrie Crouse) has been traveling in Greenland and is flying over. Would Mitch mind picking up Ellen and her traveling companion (Katz’s wife, Elizabeth McKee, a first-time screen actor) from the airport?
He most certainly would not. Ellen’s a “hottie,” Mitch tells Colin, and while that doesn’t mean he’s attracted to her — the archetype here is the embarrassing uncle, not the creepy one — Mitch believes that squiring two young women around town will help the men meet others. But not only do the youngsters prove unhelpful as wingmen, they’re no more interested in smoking pot with Mitch than Colin is. After a long night in a bar that just reminds the men of their age, the two pairs go their separate ways, leaving the men to tour the rest of Iceland alone, in their rented Hummer. Their most noteworthy misadventure will entail nothing more than a night spent sleeping on uncomfortable rocks.
Cinematographer Andrew Reed frames the scenes of human interaction nicely. But the film’s pale color palette doesn’t bring out the best in landscapes that inspire awe both in person and in such big-budget films as “Prometheus” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” (The next “Star Wars” film is reportedly shooting there as well, which adds some unintentional humor. A nighttime scene of Mitch and Colin arguing, illuminated only by two glow sticks they got in a night club, looks like a half-hearted showdown with miniature lightsabers.)
The men aren’t always fighting. They frolic through multiple happy montages set to the ’80s hit “In a Big Country.” But Colin’s sometimes testy reserve in the face of Mitch’s pushy high spirits provides the closest thing this low-key film has to drama.
Like most stars of road movies, they’re an odd couple; unlike most, both the friction between them and their underlying loyalty feel real, not contrived to supply a movie’s dramatic arc. We come to sympathize strongly with Colin, even though he says fairly little about his romantic setbacks. As for Mitch, who never shuts up, if you can stand him for 15 minutes, he’ll probably keep you chuckling for an hour and a half.
DeFore is a freelance writer.
★ ★ ½
R. At area theaters. Contains drug use, sexual references and rough language. 95 minutes.