Self-consciously mannered yet fitfully interesting, “Around the Bend” gets the most mileage it can from the eccentric, low-key charisma of Christopher Walken as a black-sheep father making amends to three generations of his family during a quirky intergenerational road trip to the desert southwest. Winner of ex-aequo jury and thesp awards at the Montreal fest, pic’s Oct. 8 bow via Warner Independent Pictures may tug the odd heartstring on limited release (there were audible sniffles at the first Montreal screening), but feels too scattershot to go the distance.
Recently separated bank employee Jason Lair (Josh Lucas) lives in Los Angeles with his 6-year-old son, Zach (Jonah Bobo), the boy’s great-grandfather, former archaeologist and current oddball Henry (Michael Caine), and Danish live-in caregiver Katrina (Glenne Headly). Jason was raised by the old man, yet yearns for a normalcy that eludes him, due in no small part to the longtime absence of his recidivist father, Turner (Walken).
When Turner abruptly appears (“You’re not dead anymore,” says Zach, who’d been told he was), the four generations of Lairs seem complete, if somewhat awkward. Henry, convinced he doesn’t have long to live, devises an elaborate funeral request while sitting in the booth of his favorite fried chicken chain before promptly dropping dead. These bizarre instructions, written on Post-its and stuffed in fast-food bags, involve dinners at a series of the chain outlets between Los Angeles and Albuquerque, followed by the spooning of his ashes (to be mixed with those of his newly dead dog) on the ground outside.
Resisting the urge to disappear once again, the vegetarian Turner sets off with his reluctant son and fascinated grandson in tow. What follows are a series of confrontations between the two adults that culminate in the real explanation of Jason’s pronounced limp and a final, long-overdue measure of peace between father and son.
Debuting writer-director Jordan Roberts, whose previous script credits include “Road to Perdition” and “Mr. Lucky,” says pic’s decade-long gestation involved 32 very different script drafts. Years of tinkering have left a residue of predictability — a forced feeling of familial bonding burdened with an air of determined idiosyncrasy.
Both Caine and Walken have brief dance sequences, the former a Native American-inspired shuffle around the restaurant, the latter that lunging hop used to such memorable effect in Spike Jonze’s musicvideo for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice.”
With a perf apparently trimmed in post, Caine doesn’t make it much past the 20-minute mark and thus doesn’t have enough time to invest Henry with much in the way of plausible character motivation. Lucas does the best he can with a rather stuffy character, and young Bobo brings a pleasant mix of cuteness and sass to the youngest Lair. Headly’s disenfranchised accent results in references to Jason’s newly returned “fazzer.”
This leaves Walken the story’s fulcrum, and the actor responds with a performance at once crafty and beguiling. “We made love on a big rock,” he tells Jason of an early meeting with his future wife, the peculiar musical cadences of his reading investing the line with both wonder and sadness.
Tech credits are capable if unremarkable. David Baerwald’s score is augmented by a series of shrewdly chosen deep album cuts by Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, Warren Zevon and others.