Rarely has euthanasia seemed more desirable than it’s made to appear in “Youth in Oregon,” a torturous saga about a man dying of an incurable heart condition who sets out on a cross-country journey to Oregon, where killing oneself is legal. Maudlin and mannered, this contrived indie squanders another fine late-career performance from Frank Langella, dousing its treatment of the subject in affectations until it’s snuffed out any trace of genuine life. While it fits comfortably into the fragmented-family drama subgenre prized each year at the Tribeca Film Festival, its groan-worthiness is apt to get it buried at the box office.
In his standalone behind-the-camera debut (he co-directed 2007’s “Spiral” with frequent “Hachett” collaborator Adam Green), Joel David Moore stages “Youth in Oregon” like an excuse to try out every potential directorial trick he can imagine. An endless array of lens flares, fuzzy-cornered close-ups, mirror-reflected portraits and overly studied compositions — with characters shunted off to the frame’s corners, or positioned in heavily backlit silhouette — turn the film into an exercise in aesthetic aggravation, especially since none of these devices are vital to the action at hand. Rather, they’re mere embellishments designed to gussy up a profoundly glib story about dying with dignity.
The expiring gentleman in question is Raymond (Langella), a cranky retired doctor living — for the past two post-heart attack years — with soused wife Estelle (Mary Kay Place) in the home of their daughter Kate (Christina Applegate) and son-in-law Brian (Billy Crudup). This has caused much stress for Brian, who wants old grumpy Ray out, and that desire is reciprocated by the 80-year-old, who’s introduced sadly wiping fog off a bathroom mirror to stare at his miserable countenance, and who at his birthday dinner announces that he plans to journey to Oregon (the family’s old stomping ground) to meet with a doctor who’ll approve his self-assisted suicide.
Teary Kate protests but, recognizing her father intends to go through with this mission, decides that she’ll drive him, only to be stymied by a random, unrelated plot device: her daughter Annie (Nicola Peltz) has been shamed at school for sending her boyfriend Colt (Keenan Jolliff) nude photos that have now leaked. With that out-of-left-field dilemma occupying her energy (and far too much of the film’s runtime), Kate leaves it to Brian to take the wheel — all with the wholly unreasonable idea that, after trekking through a few states, Brian will somehow convince the set-in-stone Ray to change his mind and turn back around.
Their odyssey takes them to an Iowa hot air balloon festival, a roadside hot dog stand and an aviary sanctuary, which Brian — hopped up on speed-y pills that Estelle has stolen from Annie — breaks into for Ray, who’s an avid bird watcher. “Youth in Oregon” turns these winged creatures into representations of “life,” though such symbolism is as tossed-off as are the many squabbles that break out between these travellers. Things don’t improve once they take a detour to Salt Lake City to see Ray’s estranged son Danny (Josh Lucas), whom he apparently rejected because Danny ditched medical school and shacked up with a man. By that point, the cornball melodrama’s gracelessness has peaked, with basic narrative details often left barely discernible.
In two heart-rending speeches about his (and his friends’) frightening infirmity, Langella treats Ray with a respect that the rest of the film does not, with his embarrassing frailty (lowlighted by him falling over at the aviary with his pants around his knees while trying to pee) primarily exploited for cheap bathos and screamy conflict. The eventual preponderance of bickering and healing — which also involves Ray’s sexual impotence in the face of his wife’s flirtatiousness, and Brian’s tacked-on tensions with his college dropout son Nick (Alex Shaffer) — soon becomes a noose around the proceedings’ neck.
While the rest of the cast gives it their best efforts, there’s no salvaging “Youth in Oregon” from its own superficiality, which extends to its inconclusive (read: empty) ending. Rather than genuinely considering the complicated personal, familial and moral ramifications of euthanasia, it instead uses the topic as a ploy to indulge in oh-so-wacky, and then oh-so-grave, Amerindie conventions — all of them drenched in an endless, insufferable cascade of gentle piano and cello.