Around the Bend

Around the Bend (2004)

The most interesting fight in “Around the Bend” is between the movie and Christopher Walken.

“Bend” is about four generations of flawed, quirky men, and it wants to be warm and fuzzy; Christopher Walken wants to be Christopher Walken, which is to say not exactly warm and fuzzy. He’s spent a quarter-century in film breaking rhythm and keeping us off-balance. He injects spooky. Unfortunately, whatever he injects into “Around the Bend” gets dissipated in the film’s bland mush. The movie wins. We lose.

Josh Lucas plays Jason Lair, a bland banker who shares a cramped home with his son, Zach (Jonah Bobo); his grandfather, Henry (Michael Caine); and his grandfather’s Danish nurse, Katrina (Glenne Headly). Everyone around him is charmingly quirky. His grandfather, an old archaeologist, drums in the middle of the night “for an idea,” he says, and in the morning peeks in on Katrina hoping to catch a glimpse. (The old scoundrel!) The idea he’s drumming for is how to be interred. “Are we going to make Papa Henry into a mummy?” Zach asks his father. Of course Papa Henry told him that. (The old scoundrel!)

Into this mix appears estranged son Turner (Walken), with his hip ’70s clothes, drugged-out face and odd doll’s hair sticking straight up. His son greets him warily he left when Jason was 2 but Henry, older and wiser, immediately, biblically, opens his arms for his prodigal son, then proclaims, “My family’s going out to a fancy place!” Which turns out to be KFC. Which turns out to be one of the more grotesque product placements in film history.

Turner plans to leave the next morning, but Henry changes his plans by promptly dying. His final wishes, hidden, like Russian dolls, into crumpled KFC bag upon crumpled KFC bag, instructs his progeny to travel the American Southwest and scatter his ashes at key points along the way. Only when they’ve accomplished one task can they open the next crumpled KFC bag and read the next task. It’s a treasure hunt in a beat-up VW van, and the treasure is the past. And forgiveness.

Problem: Turner is the one who abides by Henry’s final wishes even though everything indicates he’d ignore them; and Jason is the one who wants to ignore Henry’s final wishes even though everything indicates he’d abide by them. So there’s falseness from the start. It doesn’t help that when Jason wants to talk, Turner doesn’t, and vice versa. Nor that the revelation at the end doesn’t have much emotional impact. Nor that ashes are scattered without any kind of existential sense. Nor that Josh Lucas isn’t a particularly interesting actor.

Some may argue that Walken is becoming a parody of himself he has a campfire dance scene that recalls the Fatboy Slim video but I find him endlessly fascinating. Early, Zach asks Turner about his wife, and Turner’s eyes bore into his grandson. “She died,” he says. It’s a jolt; it throws us off-balance.

The rest of the movie, sadly, wants us to be all warm and cozy. It wants to tuck us into bed. Try not to fall asleep.

—This review originally appeared in The Seattle Times on October 15, 2004.

© 2004 Erik Lundegaard