Aaron Katz has come a long way since his last film, 2010's cutesy mystery Cold Weather. For Land Ho!, the Portland-born Katz and co-director Martha Stephens travel to Iceland, where two geezers sightsee, talk bucket lists and gape at young women's butts. Death—the slowly creeping kind—lingers in clouds of condensed romantic regret and failing health. It's less a stark contrast than a rapid maturation from Katz's earlier efforts like Cold Weather and Quiet City, which pitted aimless 20-somethings against their own awkwardness. It's also loaded with gorgeous cinematography and casual but very blue comedy.
If someone like Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson)—a retired New Orleanian whose mind, libido and loud shirts haven't aged a day past 23—isn't your uncle, he's the one you probably wish you had. Mitch coerces his ex-brother-in-law Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), an Australian whose lack of passion would suggest origins somewhere far less sunny, to join him on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Iceland. Though Mitch won't come out and say it, he's springing for the trip to cheer up Colin, whose marriage has just ended bitterly. Commence the voyage of the retired bros.
Like Katz's earlier works, this is an exercise in dialogue. Unlike in Cold Weather, though, these characters have room to stretch. After giving honeymooners some wise advice from his grandfather, Mitch asks, "How many times have you hit the mat in the last four days? Oh, no comment?" At another point, in their hotel room, Mitch abruptly hands Colin a half-smoked joint. "Oh, 'scuse me. You wanna hit?" Mitch drawls, all business. "Is that what I think it is? Where'd you get it?" asks a groggy but bemused Colin. Then Mitch goes all Cheshire Cat: "Wouldn't you like to know?" The wheezing laughter of a family reunion ensues, as it does throughout.
At times, Mitch's irreverence borders on disturbing. At a gallery in Reykjavik, his art appreciation peaks at "creepy!" and how many shots of tequila a bellybutton can hold. (He estimates two or three.) But Nelson, always funny, carries the production. Katz and Stephens, likewise, handle comedy more dexterously than they do the angry static that later emerges between the travelers.
The film is also an exercise in beauty. Even against gray skies, Iceland shocks with meandering roads, nuclear ground cover and simmering hot springs. After leaving Reykjavik, the two tour Iceland's Golden Circle of geysers and beaches, eventually ending up at a cottage far off the beaten path. With Mitch renting—what else?—a black Hummer, the film can feel like one long, hilarious GM commercial. The soundtrack is just left of a 1980s New Wave club in Los Angeles. In a more ambitious movie, the taste would be bad, but here, it all fits together perfectly.
Yet even within a buddy road flick, it feels a little shallow for this duo to take grinning pictures in front of a lighthouse while characters like Mitch's young cousin Ellen pass in and out of their lives. Land Ho! treats the characters' surroundings far more lightly than Alexander Payne did in Sideways, for example, which tried for broad humanistic meaning. The film is mostly interested in the protagonists' brotherly arrangement, namely the subtle play of Mitch's charisma against Colin's obsequiousness.
Land Ho! succeeds without the Holmesian allusions and mumblecore dialogue of Cold Weather. Katz has achieved something special: He's grown up without becoming bitter, unfunny or inaccessible. Though dark clouds threaten Mitch and Colin's relationship—and the entire film along with it—Land Ho! trumps its own heavy heart with Mitch's jabs and Colin's little epiphanies.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: Land Ho! is rated R. It opens Friday at Cinema 21.