Friday, November 20, 2009

New on DVD & Blu-Ray: The Open Road

A young man in turmoil must reach out to his boisterous estranged father at the request of his ailing mother, and the two men are forced to sort-of bond over the course of their quirky journey together. "Haven't we already seen this before?" you might be asking yourself. Yes, you have -- we see this story portrayed about five times each year, and this film delivers about as much nuance and originality as one might expect for a motion picture generically titled, The Open Road. Therein lies the problem; there is nothing "wrong" with this movie, strictly speaking, but there is absolutely a whole lot of the lukewarm same.

Justin Timberlake and Jeff Bridges headline the film as offbeat father and son, the former a struggling minor league baseball player with not-so-secret literary aspirations and the latter a one-time MLB great who has devolved into a jocular alcoholic who roams from convention to convention signing autographs for naive fans. As the film begins, Carlton (Timberlake) receives a call telling him his mother (Mary Steenburgen) is in need of emergency surgery to aid her "heart condition" (the details of said condition are, perhaps mercifully, omitted from the story). Good ol' mom refuses treatment until she is granted one desire: that her estranged ex-husband, Kyle (Bridges) visit her bedside before she enters the operating room and that her son be the one to bring him to her.

A more belabored set-up is unimaginable, but The Open Road does everything it can to make the exposition all the more complicated. When Carlton finds his dad at a baseball memorabilia convention, Pops is surprisingly agreeable about making a trip to visit his ex, and makes plans to fly out and see her. But this is a road movie, right? So of course there is a hitch: the baseball great "loses his I.D." and is "stopped at the gate by Homeland Security," so obviously that means a road trip is necessary. Everybody accepting of this premise? Okay, moving on...

Father and son embark on a road trip from Ohio to Texas, a trek that seems oddly protracted for the sake of the film's uneven "beat the clock" framework, wherein Mom's condition worsens with each day our heroes spend on the road. Too bad it appears to take two days to travel through Kentucky and three more to get through Tennessee, when in reality it takes at best one full day to drive through both states combined. Maybe that's because the characters stop off at many different locations to share colorful moments or trade wounded sentiments that lightly touch on their rocky family history, sequences that might have been effective had the screenplay taken time to establish that history in a tangible way. Instead, we get would-be significant conversations between our grandly pontificating characters that take place at the 20-minute mark, after writer/director Michael Meredith's screenplay has raced to cobble together the central story and varying character motivations. Typically, the men unburden their souls to the film's de facto mediator, Lucy (Kate Mara), Carlton's on-again, off-again pseudo-girlfriend, who would herself benefit with more careful definition.

The Open Road is a film with virtuous intentions and limp results. Sure, the "road movie" premise is very tired, but with the right spice it can work as well as any other story construction. Here, however, every detail is murky and every character is normal to a fault. Even the loud-mouthed baseball legend, which should be hugely engaging in the hands of the great Bridges, is an earthbound caricature whose story treads water for 90 bland minutes. Timberlake is actually a talented actor, even if playing earnest isn't exactly his strong suit, and his interactions with both Bridges and Mara have a good natural flow; these actors might soar if only the material wasn't such a burdensome slog through Sameville.

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