Ice Age

07.11.14

Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz, Land Ho!, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 95 minutes. Mitch and Colin (Earl Lynn Nelson and Paul Eenhoorn).


THEY ARE A SUMMER STAPLE—geezer road movies—as attractive as a humidity-inspired influx of giant water bugs. Though it follows many rules of the genre, Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz’s Land Ho! is a movie of a different order; its scenic wonders, off-kilter humor and pathos, and the unforced chemistry between its two central characters and the actors who play them will appeal to an audience broader than the senior-ticket set (of which I am a member).

Former brothers-in-law, Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) and Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) have been out of touch since Colin’s wife died and Mitch’s wife divorced him. Now Mitch, regretfully retired from his medical practice, shows up on Colin’s doorstep with a vacation package for two in Iceland. As generous as he is emotionally needy, Mitch won’t take no for an answer, and although Colin claims he’d rather stay home, the two soon are ensconced in an elegant Reykjavik hotel, eating four-star cuisine, drinking good wine, and smoking pot a lot more potent than Colin remembers from forty years ago.

As an odd couple, Colin and Mitch are better than the sum of their parts. It’s Colin’s empathy for Mitch that allows us to see him as more than a compulsively profane old man, desperate to prove that he’s still a sexual being. It’s an empathy that’s tested almost every hour, even in the middle of the night. Mitch simply can’t bear to be left alone. As for Colin, it’s easy to imagine that if Mitch hadn’t come back into his life, he might have retreated into his shell forever. Instead, here he is eating, drinking, toking, hiking, swimming, dancing a jig on the beach, and talking not only to his old friend but to perfect strangers—most of them women.

By chance, Mitch’s cousin-once-removed and her girlfriend, both doctoral candidates at Columbia, are passing through Reykjavik. Within minutes of their meeting we see what a dinosaur Mitch is in his attitudes about women and can suspect why, even though he’s all bark and no bite, he was forcibly retired. Colin, on the other hand, is simply a lovely man, and, much later, it’s no surprise that he, not Mitch, has a brief fling with a Canadian tourist, with whom the two men luxuriate in a hot spring. What’s unexpected is that Mitch discreetly withdraws, happy to let his friend enjoy the moment.

The idea for Land Ho! originated with Stephens, who proposed to Katz that they take Nelson, her distant cousin and a natural performer, to Iceland and build a film around him. Nelson had played a miniscule role in Stephens’s second feature Pilgrim Song (2012), but was holding on to his day job as an oculoplastic surgeon. Eenhoorn, a professional actor for four decades in Australia and the US, won the attention he long deserved playing the titular role in Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner (2013). That Nelson, an enthusiastic, even reckless amateur, and Eenhoorn, a nuanced, controlled straight man, could jell into an inspired comedy team is one of the joys of the film. The director/writer collaboration of Stephens and Katz, longtime friends who met in the University of North Carolina’s film department, is more difficult to parse. One of the most talented young American independent filmmakers, Katz has a distinct lyrical style that is punctuated by sweetly strange humor. His Dance Party, USA (2006) is a coming-of-age classic, and his more expansive, Portland-based Cold Weather (2010) bends the mystery/thriller genre every which way. Land Ho! seems very much like an Aaron Katz movie, barring that without Stephens, he never would have made it.

Never sentimental, except perhaps for a brief coda that panders to the comedy audience’s desire for a big-joke ending, Land Ho! juxtaposes two intimate character studies—and the overwhelming desire for intimacy on the part of those characters—with the gorgeously rugged, grand-scaled landscape of Iceland. Shooting with the Red camera, Katz’s longtime cinematographer Andrew Reed fashions images of rough beauty. One of them—a startled, upward tilt when a geyser suddenly erupts—is the best visual joke in a movie where great timing—that of the actors and of Katz’s editing—not only belies the seeming casualness of the plot, but proves to be the source of immense pleasure on-screen and in life.

Amy Taubin

Land Ho! opens on Friday, July 11th at select theaters in New York and Los Angeles.