I remember around fifteen years ago when the big-name crime caper Family Business was released. It starred Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, and Matthew Broderick…as three generations (in that order) of an Italian crime family. I could easily believe Connery as Broderick’s father or grandfather, and could even give into Hoffman as Broderick’s pappy. But a then-sixty-year-old Connery playing paternal to a then-fifty-two-year-old Hoffman was what put that family out of Business. Fifteen years later, first-time director Jordan Roberts has taken a similar risk with Around the Bend, and the results are just as damaging.
Josh Lucas plays Jason Lair, a mild-mannered bank employee and single father who lives with his six-year-old son Zach (Jonah Bobo) and ailing grandfather, Henry (Michael Caine) is a former archeologist nearing death and exploring alternative methods of burial for his funeral, all from the confines of his twin-size bed. After Turner (Christopher Walken), Henry’s estranged son and Jason’s father, pays the family an unexpected visit, the Lairs lose their beloved patriarch. Soon, the remaining men embark on a trip through the southwest desert to distribute the ashes in a ceremonial fashion, as Henry wished, and to bond with each other, also as Henry wished.
It’s the casting of Caine as Walken’s father, despite a merely 10-year age difference, that hampers Around the Bend and left me unable to suspend disbelief, even though the filmmakers use heavy eye makeup to convince us this is father-son. I originally thought they were supposed to be brothers; a concept I might have believed, considering that Caine and his peer Robert Duvall fraternized very well as a pair of crotchety uncles in Secondhand Lions last year.
Even after old Henry passes, the film has trouble distinguishing itself from a typical multigenerational road story. Walken and Caine are mischievous in their old age, attracting the attention of the soon-to-be mischievous youngling, Zach. The middle-man Jason, angry towards his father and grandfather for putting him in this situation after years of loyalty, resents a potential bond between Turner and Zach, deciding that Turner does not deserve to be forgiven by anyone, least of all him or his young son. Yet within a matter of days, he still goes from a curmudgeon to forgiving and forgetting.
We’ve seen this situation before. Just a few years ago, Kirk Douglas made a subtly triumphant return to the big screen in Diamonds, a film about three male generations of a family (Douglas, Dan Ackroyd, and Corbin Allred) who go on a cross-country road-trip in search of (see title) and nearly every element of that film is present here: the troublesome grandfather, the joyless father, and the eager younger son. Four years later, Douglas nearly repeated the role in It Runs in the Family, only this time his son was played by real-life kin, Michael.
Here is where you will be inspired towards forgiveness: the performances. Christopher Walken and Josh Lucas share a warm chemistry, with vulnerability, regret, and anger fueling their every exchange. Walken harkens back to the days of his less villainous work, avoiding his tendency towards self-caricature (minus one scene, where he dances like his typically kooky self), while Lucas takes a nice break from playing characters that are emotionally distant to shed some tears with his leading co-star.
There is good drama trying to make its way to the surface in Around the Bend: a story about a patriarchal family tying together loose ends, forgiving each other for the past, and taking a new, better direction. But the miscasting of Caine is crucial, and the clichéd character dynamics prevent the film from navigating around any bend. Too bad: the idea of an archeologist leaving his legacy to his family might have made an interesting film. Instead, Around the Bend settles for being a typical “old man’s last wishes” story. That would be fine, if only the wishes were less predictable.