Entirely predictable but surprisingly involving, “The Open Road” gets respectable mileage from a familiar story about the gradual, grudging reconciliation between an errant father, a former Major League superstar, and his son, a discontented minor-league hopeful, during a cross-country road trip. Boasting strong performances by Jeff Bridges and Justin Timberlake as the estranged duo, writer-director Michael Meredith’s indie dramedy hardly qualifies as a home run, but largely satisfies as, at the very least, a stand-up double. After limited theatrical play, the pic may score in ancillary.
Jeff Bridges proves to be a most valuable player here as Kyle Garrett, a retired MLB luminary who’s never been any great shakes as a family man. Whether he’s signing autographs or spinning yarns while having a drink or two (or six or seven) in small-town bar, Kyle has the practiced affability of someone most at ease in the company of admiring strangers. His sangfroid diminishes slightly, but noticeably, when he’s paid a visit by someone who knows him all too well: Carlton (Justin Timberlake), the son he hasn’t heard from in nearly five years.
On temporary leave from the minor-league Corpus Christie Hooks, Carlton shows up unannounced at an Ohio convention with unwelcome news: Katherine (Mary Steenburgen), Carlton’s mom, is seriously ailing back in Houston, but won’t agree to a risky heart operation unless Kyle, her long-absent husband, is close by.
Kyle agrees to fly back to Houston with Carlton. But, true to his nature as a chronically unreliable ne’er-do-well, the prodigal dad conveniently loses his wallet just before their flight, and airport security can’t allow him to board the plane.
All of which, of course, serves as setup for a road trip, as Kyle and Carlton — accompanied by Lucy (Kate Mara), Carlton’s on-and-off girlfriend — take a long-distance drive in a rented SUV, on a journey that allows plenty of time for detours into unresolved issues and uncomfortable confrontations.
Dramatically and emotionally, “The Open Road” covers very little fresh ground. But auds willing to trek through this well-trod territory will enjoy the company of engaging traveling companions. Timberlake appealingly conveys the right measures of open-faced sincerity, long-simmering resentment and tongue-tied yearning, while Mara fleshes out her stock girlfriend role with subtle shadings of character.
Bridges dominates the pic, but does so by effectively underplaying a role that easily could have tempted another actor to attention-grabbing excess. His shrewd restraint is reflected in Meredith’s overall approach to storytelling: The comic elements are never too broad, and the drama, while compelling, is soft-pedaled.
Better still, Meredith never attempts the cheap trick of resolving conflicts with melodramatic revelations. The closest he comes to explaining Kyle’s selfishness is a wrenching scene in which he admits that, while he may have loved his family, he loved himself more. It’s not difficult to discern the influence of executive producer Wim Wenders, whose own “Don’t Come Knocking” dealt with (among other things) a similarly edgy father-and-son reunion. (Anyone who knows that Meredith’s own father is football great Don Meredith may wonder just how autobiographical “The Open Road” really is.)
Meredith backs his three leads with a strong lineup of supporting players. The newly ubiquitous Steenburgen makes the most of her limited screen time, and there are sharp cameos by Harry Dean Stanton, Lyle Lovett and Ted Danson.
Reportedly filmed in several states over 26 days, “The Open Road” boasts first-rate production values that suggest a small budget was spent wisely. Highlights include a stop at Memphis’ famous Peabody Hotel just in time for the daily march of ducks through the storied lobby.