“Death ends a life,” Robert Anderson noted in his 1968 play (and 1970 film adaptation) “I Never Sang for My Father,” “but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on the survivor’s mind, toward some resolution, which it may never find.” A truncated version of that memorable line — jettisoning everything after the word “relationship” — has been used, and abused, over the decades as a sentimental, one-size-fits-all aphorism to comfort the bereaved and sell greeting cards. It is much to the credit of the people who made “Ride the Eagle,” a film that generously laces its sentimentality with clear-eyed intelligence, that they frankly acknowledge how difficult such a resolution might be, even as they earn a few good laughs in the process.
Jake Johnson, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Trent O’Donnell, engagingly plays Leif, a rock-pop percussionist on the anxious side of 40 who’s aligned — tenuously, as it turns out — with bandmates two decades younger than him. Out of the blue, he receives word that Honey (Susan Sarandon), his long-estranged mother, has died of cancer, and bequeathed him her spacious Yosemite cabin. But there’s a catch: Leif can claim his “conditional inheritance” only if he can complete the to-do list she has described on a VHS tape, and accompanying documents, left behind in the cabin.
Leif is a great deal less than mournful when he learns of his mom’s demise. “I didn’t really know her, to be honest,” he tells anyone who asks about their frayed family ties. The exposition is smoothly provided in Leif’s conversations with Gorka (Luis Fernandez-Gil), his loquacious manager, and one-sided tête-à-têtes with Nora, his faithful dog: Honey abandoned Leif when he was 12 years old so she could run off and join a New Age cult of some sort. When she repeatedly attempted a reconciliation several years later, he was having none of it, and never returned her calls.
So it seems like he is driven primarily by curiosity — and yes, a desire to claim some possibly valuable real estate — when Leif departs from L.A., with Nora in tow, and drives to the cabin in the woods. He’s greatly amused to find huge quantities of marijuana stocked in Mom’s cupboards — an indication that, hey, maybe Honey remained a free spirit to the end — but by turns befuddled and annoyed by the first demands on the to-do list. (Dropping off a screw-you note to someone in a neighboring cabin while that individual is not at home proves more dangerous than Leif imagined.) But Leif’s mood brightens when the videotaped Honey pushes him to seek a resolution to his relationship with an ex-girlfriend, Audrey (D’Arcy Carden), who is initially wary, but ultimately receptive, when he places a call.
Johnson’s self-effacing charisma serves him well throughout a performance that calls for him to be the only human being on-screen during long stretches of “Ride the Eagle.” (Indeed, the only scene in which he does not appear reveals a traitorous side of a supporting character.) Sarandon tackles what arguably is an even bigger challenge — she’s only ever seen on a TV screen, and her Honey very often comes across as irrepressibly presumptuous and self-absorbed — but she rises to the occasion without overt attempts to sandpaper the woman’s hard edges.
Carden is so appealing as Audrey that you may wish the movie had more of her. And J.K. Simmons makes the absolute most of his one meaty scene as Carl, Honey’s on-again, off-again lover, conveying a wide range of emotions while telling Leif rather more than he wanted to know about his mom’s sex life — and revealing that, up to the end, Honey was not averse to manipulating people she supposedly cared about.
“Ride the Eagle” likely will be most warmly embraced by viewers who have experienced profoundly mixed emotions when hearing about the death of a loved one who frequently was extremely difficult to love. On the other hand, the movie’s seriocomic consideration of how messy familial, sexual and professional relationships can be should have a well-nigh universal resonance.
But here’s the thing: Some folks will get barely 20 minutes into “Ride the Eagle” before they wonder: “Wait, why doesn’t he just fast-forward through the tape, realize there’s no way anyone could prove he didn’t fulfill his late mom’s requests and simply claim the cabin?” Many of those same people also will think: “How could a free-spirited woman with no apparent source of income maintain, much less purchase in the first place, a cabin that looks like an upscale ski chalet worthy of an Architectural Digest photo spread?” Or: “All this talk about Mom is well and good, but why don’t we learn anything about this guy’s father?” Such nitpickers belong to the group Alfred Hitchcock memorably and derisively described as “the plausibles.” If you suspect you fit this description, “Ride the Eagle” isn’t a movie for you. It’s for the rest of us.