We’ve seen him dozens of times before, saying any damn thing that comes into his head (because living on the planet for 70 or 80 years has given him the right to do so). He’s on his own incorrigible wavelength, dropping putdowns as fresh as his body is old, spicing every cranky comment with a perfectly chosen F–bomb. But, of course, he’s also part of the family. He’s the grumpy old man, the naughty codger from hell — the hilarious over-the-hill a–hole who is always played by someone like, you know, Alan Arkin. Just about every time we see him, he’s a showbiz creation, a character baptized in shtick.
But in “Boundaries,” a touching yet wised-up father-daughter road movie that’s the best version of this sort of film you could imagine (it’s standard, but very tastefully done), Christopher Plummer plays him with a lived-in, soft-shoe command. At 88, Plummer looks about as handsome as a man his age can be, with cheekbones that take the light beautifully, his white hair swept back and set off by a beard that’s still, from certain angles, sort of sexy. He plays Jack Jaconi, the pathologically charming and selfish father of Laura (Vera Farmiga), and by the end of the opening scene, when she’s sounding off to her therapist about him, we’re certain that he must be some version of the monster she describes. Laura won’t even take his calls — that’s how much damage he’s caused.
Then Jack shows up, and he’s such a smiley and debonair old coot that he doesn’t only seem not so bad; he seems real. True, the tropes are all in place. Jack, who has just gotten kicked out of his senior-citizen facility, has $200,000 worth of marijuana he’s trying to unload. (Yes, he’s a drug dealer.) He also speaks his mind with such a sly-boots sense of humor that it takes us a moment or two to notice how merciless he is. When his teenage grandson, Henry (Lewis McDougall), makes a mild off-color remark about not wanting to go into a shed for fear of being molested, Jack says, “You wouldn’t get molested with a bow in your hair.” Ouch! (On several levels.)
Yet with no insult to Alan Arkin, or to the cast of either version of “Going in Style,” Plummer takes the character of Jack and divests him of any hint of the usual calculated comic overstatement. Every line feels spontaneous, served up with Plummer’s dryly amused finesse, in tones that are quiet yet sonorous enough to rival Morgan Freeman’s. Laura, an animal-rescue freak, has a collection of canine strays who are wispy and broken-down enough to look like actual rescue dogs. “You’re the Pied Piper of mange,” says Jack, and it’s a good line, but what he means is: You’re working way too hard to rescue yourself.
The writer-director, Shana Feste, who made the 2010 Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle “Country Strong,” knows how to stage a road movie as soft-edged psychodrama, without getting bogged down in dumb plot developments. And she’s got just the right actress in Vera Farmiga, who plays Laura with a protective anger — a sense of propping up her own boundaries — that can’t mask how vulnerable she still is to her dad’s bad parenting. Is Laura right that he wasn’t there for her? Of course! But the movie is still tough enough to say: That’s no excuse for playing life’s victim.
Driving from Portland to Los Angeles, where Laura plans to deposit Jack in the home of her sister, the goofy Deadhead and dog-walker JoJo (Kriste Schaal), they stop off at the homes of several key people: Jack’s two old buddies, played by a warmly flaky Christopher Lloyd and a coolly flaky Peter Fonda, as well as Laura’s ex-husband, a flyweight scoundrel (Bobby Cannavale) whom she married because he was her dad all over again. Along the way, Henry, the “weird” (i.e., smart and humane) grandson, a young artist who draws imagined nudes of people that nail their inner essence, forms the inevitable secret alliance with Jack. He helps him sell (and conceal) his weed, but more than that he finds the father figure he needs in this grandfather who answers to absolutely no one. The beauty of Plummer’s performance is that he makes Jack a crusty life force.
“Boundaries” is very fluidly shot, with a pleasing commercial sheen, and if handled correctly it could prove to be a mid-summer counter-programming awards-bait indie charmer. Farmiga hasn’t had a part this good since “Up in the Air,” and Plummer is on a roll. The 15-year-old Scottish actor Lewis McDougall, with his surly delinquent smirk, makes himself someone to watch. “Boundaries,” to be sure, delivers you to a place you know you’re going, but there should always be room for a movie that does that this well.