Film Review: Land Ho!

A pair of seniors find friendship and renewal on a road trip through Iceland, but the journey is flatlined by lack of incident and tedious naturalism.

Land Ho! is so low-key it barely manages to register on the screen. It’s tempting to speculate that this semi-travelogue from Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz (helmer of the noir-ish, well-received Winter Weather) collected its plaudits at this year’s Sundance as a triumph of minimalist naturalism, an exercise in how little you can come up with and still pass something off as a movie.

Two altacockers—ex-brothers-in-law—take off for Iceland in an attempt to reclaim youthful pleasures by hitting Reykjavik nightclubs and trendy spas, soaking in geothermal pools, and bunking at remote B&Bs in craggy locales. Positioning itself as a throwback to 1980s road comedies, Land Ho! also purports to explore aging, loneliness and friendship. Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson), the loudmouth and instigator of the pair, is a retired former surgeon from New Orleans, who may in fact have been forced to retire. His more reserved buddy Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), conveying an air of quiet forbearance, sacrificed his musical gifts to an arid stretch as a banker. Though temperamentally opposite, this septuagenarian odd couple share a shredding connection to the ongoing world and a hunger for companionship.

Once in Iceland, not a heck of a lot happens. The guys hang with a young female cousin of Mitch’s and her attractive friend, which gestures at a possible December-May escapade, but nuthin’ doin’—almost disappointing, since the viewer is itching for even a scuzzy incident to liven things up. It takes a certain chutzpah for a filmmaker to introduce a potentially hot-button setup, then let it dribble away. Noah Baumbach pulled off something similar in Frances Ha, when his heroine spends her Paris weekend marooned in her hotel room—but whereas he mined the non-event for its humor, it’s hard to guess what the creators of Land Ho! hoped to achieve with this and other going-nowhere moments.

As the two geezers Hummer their way through the countryside of vast, haunting landscapes, moss-coated cliffs and fog-shrouded mountains, it becomes clear that this primordial Eden can stand in as star of the film. You can practically smell the pristine air. In fact, Land HoI may trigger an uptick in Icelandic travel. Less successful are the humans cavorting against their glorious backdrop. Mitch, who can produce a joint faster than you can say “Reykjavik,” is obsessed with things sexual, viewing a geyser as a giant ejaculation and the local lighthouses as “rock-hard cocks with no balls.” Colin displays mild shock as his confrere carries on about “broads” and the celebs he’d like to bed; the viewer winces.

Though there’s a poignancy to this late-life horndog, Mitch, with his Southern drawl, mainly comes across as the Ur-Ugly American travelers worldwide seek to avoid. This is especially true in his sexist and intrusive comments to a pair of honeymooners at an inn, who, by some miracle, don’t take offense. Ironically, it’s Colin, far more zipped up than his loudmouth buddy, who surprises with a third-act reversal following a dip with a Canadian hiker in a geothermal pool. But the about-face is too little, too late.

To their credit, I suppose, neither Eenhoorn nor Nelson come across as actors. In fact, Nelson is an oculoplastic surgeon in New Orleans who has “mastered the art of partying and good living,” according to the press notes. And to the filmmakers’ credit, the script never panders, refusing to inject the canned reversals and peak moments you’d find in commerce-centered efforts. But Stevens and Katz give naturalism a bad name by making it boring. Land Ho! intends to affirm that even for the graying population, life offers surprises, renewals, fun. Sadly, they’re only experienced by the gents onscreen.

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