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Sundance Film Review: ‘Land Ho!’

Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson give pitch-perfect performances in this gently elegiac road comedy from helmers Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz.

With:

Paul Eenhoorn, Earl Lynn Nelson, Karrie Crouse, Elizabeth McKee, Alice Olivia Clarke, Emmsje Gauti.

You’re never too old to soak in a hot spring, get high on really good weed, or give a marvelous screen performance — or so goes the charming logic of “Land Ho!,” a gently elegiac road comedy about two aging buddies vacationing in Iceland. A bawdy, bittersweet ode to friendship’s lasting joys and life’s inevitable regrets, the film also offers sturdy testament to the rewards of working as a duo, showcasing not only pitch-perfect turns from Paul Eenhoorn and relative newcomer Earl Lynn Nelson, but also a seamless writing-directing collaboration between rising indie helmers Martha Stephens (“Pilgrim Song”) and Aaron Katz (“Cold Weather”). Sony Classics swooped in to acquire worldwide rights at Sundance, confirming this modest winner’s potential to travel far and wide.

It begins with a long-overdue reunion between two men who were once related by marriage, as Seattle-based Colin (Eenhoorn) arrives on the Kentucky doorstep of his former brother-in-law, Mitch (Nelson). The requisite stark contrast in personalities is established right off the bat when Mitch, a gregarious, all-American loudmouth, tells Colin, a softer-spoken Australian-American, that he’s planned an impromptu trip to Iceland for the two of them. After some half-hearted protest, Colin agrees, the vacation being just what he needs to get his mind off his recent split from his second wife.

Before long the two men land in Reykjavik, where Mitch has a fairly simple, effortlessly pleasurable agenda in store: stay in nice hotels, eat at the city’s finest restaurants, and possibly smoke some premiere local pot before moving on to the scenic countryside, with its hot springs and hiking spots. (The superb cinematography, by Katz regular Andrew Reed, alternates between intimate closeups of the characters indoors and staggeringly beautiful outdoor vistas.)

More than a few scenes here may suggest that Stephens and Katz are making a superannuated remake of “The Trip” or its recently Sundance-premiered sequel, “The Trip to Italy”; not unlike Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, Mitch and Colin savor their share of exquisite meals (at one point sampling a few baffling-looking molecular gastronomy dishes), and Colin even has a few celebrity impersonations up his sleeve, including Danny De Vito in the aptly referenced “Twins.” Before long, too, the men are joined by a pair of attractive, much younger female companions in the form of Ellen (Karrie Crouse, Stephens’ regular collaborator) and Janet (Elizabeth McKee, Katz’s wife), who have been touring Greenland and coincidentally find themselves in Reykjavik at the same time as Colin and Mitch.

The fact that Mitch and Ellen are distantly related provides a merciful early hint that “Land Ho!” will not devolve into the sort of leering May-December sexcapade one might expect from a less mature sensibility at the helm. And sure enough, after some initial tentativeness that dissolves once Mitch breaks the ice, so to speak, the four ultimately develop a warm, friendly rapport that serves, for the two gents, as a sweet, sad reminder of their vanished youth.

It’s typical of Stephens and Katz’s approach that, rather than imposing any artificial melodrama or comedy on the proceedings, they allow their characters to simply lose themselves in conversation and the pleasure of each other’s company. This willingness to linger yields one of the film’s more memorable interludes, as Janet launches into a drawn-out recap of a supernatural horror story she read recently, about a house that began to feed upon the bodies of its inhabitants — a tale that requires little to no metaphorical unpacking once Mitch later acknowledges that it gave him the creeps.

That a comedy starring two actors of a certain age will touch on its characters’ lifetime disappointments, interpersonal resentments and encroaching sense of mortality is more or less a given; it’s considerably less assured that it will cover this well-tilled territory as gracefully as “Land Ho!” does. As Mitch and Colin bid farewell to their companions and head for the interior, our sense of their individual lives deepens appreciably; we learn a bit about their failed first marriages, their relationships with their children, and particularly their professional setbacks: Colin was once a promising French-horn player who ultimately settled into an indifferent banking career, while Mitch, a surgeon, discloses that his recent retirement wasn’t exactly voluntary.

As it moves its characters toward a delightfully well-earned ending, by way of a brief encounter with a friendly hiker (Alice Olivia Clarke), “Land Ho!” strikes a near-perfect balance between indie scrappiness and mainstream polish; although written and acted along mostly naturalistic lines, it’s more than just an inarticulate mumblecore (grumblecore?) exercise. The film’s pleasures as eye-candy travelogue are delivered without pretense or apology; certainly the Icelandic Tourist Board can expect a small uptick in business following its release. But what gives the story its moment-to-moment buoyancy is the pleasure of watching two actors working brilliantly in tandem.

With only a few screen credits to his name (including “Pilgrim Song”), Nelson makes a fairly unforgettable impression as the sometimes lovable, sometimes trying Mitch, the kind of vulgarian who likes to point out the phallic subtext of geysers and lighthouses, and who thinks nothing of doling out some unsolicited marriage advice to a honeymooning couple he meets in a hotel lobby. The more veteran Eenhoorn, who came to some prominence as the star of last year’s Sundance-premiered “This Is Martin Bonner,” is no less invaluable as the more restrained, refined half of the duo who can nonetheless reveal a wild and silly side, just as Mitch at times proves capable of unexpected sensitivity.

Shot over just 18 days and completed just a year after it was first conceived, the production has a technical polish that belies its modest budget. The title tune, composed by Keegan DeWitt (who also scored the concurrent Sundance Next selection “Listen Up Philip”), is one of a handful of selections on a rousing soundtrack supervised by Nick Stumpf.

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Sundance Film Review: 'Land Ho!'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Next), Jan. 21, 2014. Running time: 94 MIN.

Production:

A Sony Pictures Classics (worldwide) release of a Gamechanger Films presentation of a Syncopated Films/Max Cap production in association with Unbound Feet Prods./Vintage Pictures. (International sales: the Film Sales Co., New York.) Produced by Mynette Louie, Sara Murphy, Christina Jennings. Executive producers, David Gordon Green, Julie Parker Benello, Dan Cogan, Geralyn Dreyfous, Wendy Ettinger. Co-producers, Hlin Johannesdottir, Birgitta Bjornsdottir. Co-executive producers, Abigail Disney, Paula M. Froehle, Regina K. Skully, Emily Ting.

Crew:

Directed, written by Martha Stephens, Aaron Katz. Camera (color), Andrew Reed; editor, Katz; music, Keegan DeWitt; music supervisor, Nick Stumpf; sound, Anthony Enns; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Ryan Billia; assistant director, Sara Murphy.

With:

Paul Eenhoorn, Earl Lynn Nelson, Karrie Crouse, Elizabeth McKee, Alice Olivia Clarke, Emmsje Gauti.

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