"Around the Bend" feels as if it were written in the immediate aftermath of a particularly inspirational screenwriting seminar, in which all the secrets of the mythic plot, the emotional growth trajectory and the big reveal had been meticulously outlined in purple chalk on the blackboard.
Despite its brilliant leads -- Michael Caine and Christopher Walken -- it never quite escapes that purple chalk feeling: It's so programmatic, so dogged in hitting the right steps at the right time that it completely lacks spontaneity. It seems to think it's good because it followed the outline.
The film is one of those generations-of-men things, where all the guys in the end reach across the decades, the disappointments and the deaths to give each other a big ol' hug, blink back a manly tear and swear to show love more the next time. In other words, what happens when bad boys go good. It happens that I like good-boys-go-bad movies a lot better, as does America in general, given the predominance of movies in which men shoot, stab and beat each other over those in which they hug each other.
Anyhow, in this one, old papa Henry (Caine) is dying and knows it; he yearns to see the sundered generations of his messed-up family reunited. That means primarily his prodigal son, Turner, mysteriously absent these many years, and his grandson, the limping Jason (Josh Lucas), and Jason's son, Zach (Jonah Bobo). Turner and Jason haven't talked in years; Zach has never met his grandfather.
Turner (Walken, otherwise known as Alien X-7650, from the planet Xandon) makes it before checkout time, which means that a good deal of the central part of the picture involves men scuffling and shuffling around the emotional difficulties between them and their inability to communicate. I say, if God wanted men to communicate, he would have made them women. But screenwriter and director Jordan Roberts, who got this movie made with the wonderful assistance of those script-huggers at the Sundance Film Institute, wants communication, dammit, and that's what he gets.
But he also wants cuteness. It's as if he's been told by the screenwriting guru, "Make it real by making it quirky. Reverse expectations, worship the quotidian, notice funny accents and people with strange faces." He does all that: For example, this household of men is presided over by a Swiss maid played by the formerly wonderful actress Glenne Headly, who speaks in a thick, phony, indeterminate accent and watches bloody horror movies for their family values. Would that be zany or just plain wacky? Then there's Henry's penchant for convening family meetings in his favorite restaurant, which happens to be KFC. So we see a lot of that brownish, crusty fried stuff eaten while all the boys are working out their various ill feelings.
Well, of course, gramps dies. But he leaves a "cute" will -- my favorite kind! -- in which his son and grandson and great-grandson are instructed to travel together across the Southwest depositing spoonfuls of his ashes in various spots along the road, under pain of losing the surprisingly large inheritance.
Oh, this is too easy. You be the critic:
Do you think it'll finally come out why Jason limps?
Do you think Jason and Turner will finally hug?
Do you think that someone else will die?
Do you think that we will get close-ups of Henry's ashes swirling across the severe beauty of the New Mexico desert?
Do you think that Josh Lucas looks too much like Matthew McConaughey?
Do you think Christopher Walken will make 13 more movies this year?
See, you don't need me.
Around the Bend (85 minutes, at Landmark E Street and Bethesda Row) is rated R for adult themes and profanity.