How's this for four generations of paterfamilias: Michael Caine as the rascally dying elder; Christopher Walken as his long-lost ex-con drug-addict progeny; Josh Lucas as Walken's uptight über-responsible son; and as the tribe's cherubic hope-for-the-future, newcomer Jonah Bobo, who may some day tell his grandchildren, "When I was 6, I made a movie with Michael Caine and Christopher Walken." (And they'll say: "Who?")
Around the Bend, the first feature film from writer/director Jordan Roberts, begins and ends with an air of serene naturalism (for the art-film crowd) and in between passes through a painfully requisite case of the cutes (for the blue-rinse crowd, who tittered at the sight of three guys -- photographed against the rocky backdrop of the New Mexico desert -- zipping up after a group pee). Roberts' film takes place in a heart-warming movie-world where death is a bittersweet eccentricity that brings people together, and where just around the bend, as in all good dialectics, the past and the present collide to promise the future.
Caine's Henry, a retired archaeologist, dies peacefully at a KFC in the first 15 minutes of Around the Bend. But he leaves behind a bag full of letters, maps and Post-It notes that lead his three heirs to a series of KFCs and -- you can't buy publicity like this -- on a scavenger hunt for their souls. It all amounts to a sort of three-legged race for dysfunctional patriarchal families, with real emotions replaced by (pardon the pun) reel ones, and with ciphers who have no motivation aside from movie-character sentimentality and prickliness.
Before Roberts' dialogue turns all soft, it's lean and stocked with lightning-quick metaphors for life and death. Later on, his funniest moment is a fleeting Alcoholics Anonymous joke that feels ad-libbed by Walken, and his least funny ones are any scene with Glenne Headly, who plays -- complete with an accent stolen from Teri Garr in Young Frankenstein -- Henry's weird Danish nurse. Everything else in Around the Bend, funny or not, is mostly just awkward and banal.
Roberts claims to have written 30 drafts of his script. But I wonder if he shouldn't have just filmed the first one, which might have been messier, and thus more authentic. Nonetheless, it's rewarding to see Caine and Walken, who have such distinctive screen personas, working in a quiet naturalistic mode (when Roberts lets them). Lucas has little to do and does it without incident. And Jonah Bobo, who shows no particular hope of a promising career, seems most of the time to be reciting lines the way someone told him to recite them, which occasionally (if accidentally) makes Around the Bend seem like something very slightly more than a minor first work whose creator hasn't yet found a voice.