Kirsten Smith co-wrote Legally Blonde, 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s the Man and The House Bunny. She’s directed two short films, both starring Anna Faris, and executive produced Whip It. Her latest project is The Expendabelles, the female-centric installment of The Expendables franchise. You can find her on Twitter at @kiwilovesyou.
I may not be the target demographic for Land Ho!, but my parents are. I was lucky enough to watch the film with my folks, and I highly recommend a parent-date as the ideal viewing experience. Seeing it through senior eyes was a great way to double down on the emotional stakes in this quiet little dramedy.
There’s something endearing about two young indie directors who usually make movies about disaffected young people deciding to make a film about two old guys touring through Iceland. To be sure, Martha Stephens (Pilgrim Song) and Aaron Katz (Cold Weather) haven’t reinvented the wheel. Land Ho! is a super basic road trip story. But the filmmakers have enacted a clever twist: they’ve made “geezer mumblecore,” taking a fairly tepid genre picture and turning it into something vital for the elder set.
The movie opens with Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson), a rabble-rousing bad boy, inviting his ex-brother-in-law Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) to go on a vacation with him to Iceland. “It’s a chance to get away,” Mitch explains in what possibly might be the most low-stakes adventure movie set-up of all time. How Mitch came to choose Iceland isn’t explained, except for the fact that it has “hot springs, juicy, fantastic lobsters, and gorgeous broads.” Like other comic road movies such as Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and Midnight Run, the movie’s fizz comes from the pairing of opposites: Mitch is a womanizing, dope-smoking surgeon while Colin is a sensitive, recently-dumped concert musician. Mitch is wealthy, Colin is broke. Mitch is a Sleepless in Seattle fan, while Colin is a Silver Linings Playbook kind of guy.
The directors attended UNC’s North Carolina School of the Arts film program, and Land Ho! definitely has a David Gordon Green-y thing going on (which makes sense, since fellow alum Green is an executive producer on the film). The loose, dreamy now-patented UNC style has never been my favorite kind of filmmaking; the movies often seem more about poetic imagery than flesh-and-blood drama. I was pleasantly surprised to find there is more focus on feelings and fun in Land Ho! than previous UNC fare. However, I’d love to see what the directors would have come up with had they gone a bit more full tilt – the way Jeremy Saulnier went with Blue Ruin, which started with the same subtle behavioral vibration, then slowly caught fire and dared to legitimately burn.
Things light up significantly in the story when Mitch’s young graduate student cousin, Ellen (Karrie Crouse), and her friend Janet (Elizabeth McKee) conveniently arrive in Reykjavíkat the same time Mitch and Colin are there. “So what are you doing in Iceland?” Ellen asks. “Getting our groove back,” Mitch drawls. To prove his point, he invites the girls to a fancy 10-course dinner. He’s relishing being with two “gorgeous broads” and, as the wine flows, even Colin is shyly getting into it, asking Janet questions about her Columbia PhD studies in Jewish mysticism. One of the best moments of the movie is when Janet tells a spooky story about two travelers who get lost and end up in a haunted house of sorts. It’s obviously foreshadowing a sequence to come, but it felt rare and welcome for a film about old men to stop and bask in the intelligence of young women. Where a studio movie would surely be zooming in on Janet’s boobs, Land Ho! zooms in on her brain. Clearly, stories about men can be told by a female director, and they might even do it better than men.
The score is one of the best I’ve heard in recent memory. Stephens and Katz don’t pander to their audience with predictable old standards; the closest thing to a standard is 1983’s “In a Big Country” by Big Country, and it’s put to joyful use throughout the film. Keegan DeWitt, who previously scored This is Martin Bonner,does a lovely job curating and composing and creating a tone that is ultimately, along with Earl Lynn Nelson, the star of the show. When Mitch and Colin dance together on the beach to DeWitt’s alt-hit worthy “Land Ho!” (performed by Ólöf Rún Benediktsdóttir) you’ll feel downright delirious.
Throughout the movie, Land Ho! left me wanting more (or wanting less… in the case of all the dialogue about movies and actors, which was strangely constant). Stephens and Katz and their cinematographer Andrew Reed give us oodles of beautiful eye candy of the arctic landscape, but there’s precious little their screenplay does to create a narrative culture clash. Colin and Mitch are ostensibly fish out of water, but their foreignness never causes them any problems, mostly because the only other people they seem to interact with are hip young North Americans. I wished for more scenes like the playful encounter they have with a hammered local outside of a nightclub bathroom. The movie could have taken a few more cues from Y Tu Mamá También or Bill Forsyth’s mini-masterpiece, Local Hero, both of which give their outsider protagonists a never-ending supply of comedic conflicts.
All that being said, as the movie builds steam and heads for its conclusion, the platitudes feel poignant and heartfelt. When Colin says, “I’m gonna be sorry to leave this place,” and Mitch responds, “It’s not over yet,” it’s clear he’s talking about more than just the trip to Iceland. He’s talking about life. And the theory that travel can revitalize your life, no matter your age. While this film isn’t exactly charting new territory, Land Ho! might be a journey worth taking. Especially with your parents.