Around the Bend

How does a film like “Around the Bend” get national distribution through Warner Independent when dozens of films exactly like it wallow in Sundance obscurity, never to see the light of day outside Park City?

I cite Sundance specifically, but film festivals in general cater to this sort of movie: talky, low-budget dramas in which characters Find Themselves and/or Come To Terms with something. “Around the Bend” is better than some of them, certainly, but not by leaps and bounds. I suspect it will be of the greatest interest to people who get a kick out of Christopher Walken and want to see him in a major dramatic role instead of a wacky extended cameo.

Written and directed by Jordan Roberts, a first-timer who says the story is autobiographical, the film is about four generations of the Lair family’s men. Henry (Michael Caine) is 80 years old, dying soon, and mildly insane. He lives with his grandson Jason (Josh Lucas) and great-grandson Zack (Jonah Bobo) in Los Angeles, cared for by a live-in nurse (Glenne Headly) who watches slasher films in her spare time.

With Henry on his way out of mortality, he sends word to his estranged son, Jason’s father Turner Lair (Christopher Walken), whom no one has seen in decades. Henry is thrilled to see his son again; Jason is less than thrilled to be reunited with the father who walked out on him 30 years ago. Young Zack is just surprised that his grandfather isn’t dead after all.

Henry dies soon after Turner’s arrival, and he leaves behind a will, one of those wills that exist only in movies, the kind where the deceased demands that his survivors do something wacky. In this case, the remaining Lair men have to take Henry’s ashes on a road trip through the Southwest, depositing bits of him in various locations and thus earning the right to read new clues that direct them to their next assignment. It’s a little like MTV’s “Road Rules,” except all the destinations are Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets (Henry had a thing for KFC).

Henry’s point in all this forced father-son-grandson togetherness is to dig up old wounds — Henry was an archeologist, for those who like their symbolism obvious — and help the Lair family heal. Turner needs to atone for his sins, and Jason needs to forgive his father. (I don’t know what Zack needs to do. He should probably be in school anyway.)

A film like this, that emphasizes character development over plot, must feature characters who are compelling. These guys really aren’t. Walken is interesting, but only because he’s Walken: The character he plays is your run-of-the-mill deadbeat dad who’s done prison time. Josh Lucas doesn’t have nearly the cachet Walken does, of course, and is often out-acted and out-shined, his character ultimately as generic as Walken’s is. Their journeys are at times mildly interesting, but far from compelling.

And I don’t buy Michael Caine as Christopher Walken’s father, not for a second. Caine’s American accent isn’t very good, but even if it were, it wouldn’t work. He’s too famous for being British to be the father of a guy who’s so famous for being a New Yorker. Jordan Roberts was probably thrilled to get actors of this caliber to be in his film, but Caine is a wrong fit. Of course, I can’t really picture Caine being a huge KFC fan, either, but that’s another matter.

C+ (1 hr., 25 min.; R, some F-words, lots of other profanity, very brief gore.)