The Hollywood version of “Land Ho!” would star Alan Arkin and Michael Caine, be loud and grating, have a hundred Viagra references, and make $150 million. The real version, an unassuming little comedy about two old-timers taking a road trip across Iceland, stars two men you’ve never heard of, is charming and quiet, and will make a maximum of twelve dollars. That’s just how life works, and we have to accept it.
This is a first-time collaboration between two indie filmmakers, Aaron Katz (“Quiet City,” “Cold Weather”) and Martha Stephens (“Passenger Pigeons,” “Pilgrim Song”), perhaps the start of a rich new creative partnership. Their film is about another kind of relationship, that of two elderly men who were once brothers-in-law (they married sisters) and are now old friends. Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) is a booming-voiced, Southern-drawled surgeon with an outgoing personality and a fondness for big living. Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), originally from Australia, is reserved and meek, though he comes to life when he quotes Jim Carrey movies. To lift Colin’s spirits after a breakup, Mitch takes him on a trip to Iceland, because why not Iceland?
And now you’ve had basically the entire plot spoiled for you. Mitch and Colin fly to Reykjavik first, spend some time there, then drive an SUV across the country’s rugged, gorgeous terrain to visit geysers and hot springs and other scenes of natural beauty. They meet up with two young ladies, a cousin of Mitch’s named Ellen (Karrie Crouse) and her friend Janet (Elizabeth McKee), and take them to dinner and to one of Reykjavik’s hottest dance clubs. (The humiliating “old men in a disco” gags we’ve been conditioned to expect here thankfully do not materialize.) They meet a few other people in their travels, but no one who shifts the story’s direction. It’s mostly just Mitch and Colin as a duo — talking, joking, reminiscing, enjoying one another’s company, and flirting harmlessly with women one-third their age.
The formula may remind you of a frat-boy road-trip comedy (Mitch even smokes weed) re-cast with senior citizens, but instead of emphasizing hilarious story developments or zingy one-liners, Katz and Stephens let their film just be about these two likable old dudes. There aren’t any epic shenanigans or kooky characters, no mistaken identities or run-ins with drug traffickers. At no point does a nude Ken Jeong pop out of a car’s trunk. The movie isn’t afraid to be small in scope, to let us enjoy a pleasant, peaceful journey against the vast, primitively beautiful backdrop of Iceland.
As if to underscore that less-is-more aesthetic, Katz and Stephens cast unfamiliar faces in the main roles. Paul Eenhoorn, who plays Colin, was the title character in the Sundance 2013 hit “This Is Martin Bonner.” The other gentleman, Earl Lynn Nelson, is a real-life surgeon who has only acted in Stephens’ movies and an episode of “Eastbound and Down.” He’s a hoot, this one, full of folksy bluster (“You gotta reach down and grab a handful of guts” = carpe diem) and prone to delivering mild vulgarities that come across more as “naughty little boy” than “dirty old man.”
Though its uncluttered simplicity and refreshing lack of cliches render it sublimely enjoyable, the film never digs deep enough to give itself much weight. Mitch and Colin’s shared fears of aging, loneliness, and dying are obliquely but not meaningfully referred to. We feel the same way at the end of the film as Mitch and Colin do at the end of their trip: well, that was nice. Nobody’s life was dramatically changed, but we had a sweet time.
B- (1 hr., 36 min.; )
Originally published at Film.com.