Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Netflix Report: Old Joy

Since my son was born a year ago today (happy birthday Sammy!), I have seen a grand total of one movie in the theater (the Coens' True Grit - not bad...) and thus have been depending on Netflix to satisfy my film fix.  For obvious reasons, my wife and I have been bad about turning over our Netflix discs lately, but fortunately the video rental company has a decent growing selection of movies available for instant streaming.  Kelly Reichardt's 2006 film Old Joy caught my eye because of the glowing reviews it had received upon its release and because I had enjoyed the minimalist pleasures of the director's follow-up Wendy and Lucy.  Unfortunately, the movie did not live up to the "hype" (if you can call it that for a movie that raked in $255,923 in domestic totals) and left me more than a little bored, which is an unforgivable cinematic crime.

Old Joy has a premise that sounded interesting to me: two old friends who have drifted apart over the years take a camping trip in Oregon's Cascade Mountain forest.  Mark (Daniel London) is settled down with a house in the suburbs and a pregnant wife while Kurt (Will Oldham) is a free-spirited drifter-type who hopes to rekindle the bond the two once shared.  They hike, they talk (once in a while), and they end up at a secluded hot springs where...well, I don't want to spoil the ending, but I can tell you that I was underwhelmed when the climax finally arrived.  It's not the pace that bothered me about Old Joy.  I love the early work of Richard Linklater and David Gordon Green and I enjoy slow dramas like Phil Morrison's Junebug or Hillary Birmingham's under-appreciated Tully. You couldn't argue that much happens in any of those films either, but a writer needs to inject something of interest in a script to keep viewers engaged.  Old Joy has long stretches without dialogue and, while the cinematography is appropriately pretty, these sequences were too frequent and felt devoid of purpose.  I understand that the film is about the communication gap that now exists between these two men, but what is is the point of delivering this meaning if your audience has lost interest?  If there is an endless shot of a forest and no one is around to see it, does it make an impact?

The actors were not the problem.  Will Oldham, whom I understand is a well-known singer under the pseudonym Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, is a natural at waxing philosophical while Daniel London is given little to do.  As I mentioned, the film has the right look for the subject matter.  Reichardt shoots on 16mm which gives the proceedings an intimate home movie feel and DP Peter Sillen crafts each image to look like a living nature painting.  The movie probably would work best playing in the background at a spa where its beautiful imagery could fade into the background and lull you to sleep while you get a massage.  But as a film that is meant to be watched in its entirety (even though said entirety encompasses all of 76 minutes), Old Joy just doesn't have the script to hold its ideas in place.  I chalk it up as a noble failure.  I would rather sit through a hundred Old Joys than one Transformers movie and it is clear that Kelly Reichardt will have a bright career for years to come.


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