Aaron Katz’s early movies are stories of young, mostly white, twenty-somethings stumbling through relationships and rambling exchanges, their encounters filmed in a handheld style that captures their day-to-day frustrations. His first movie, Dance Party U.S.A, was one of the seminal entries in the ‘mumblecorps’ genre. His second film, 2007′s Quiet City, became a critics’ favorite, along with Joe Swanberg’s Hanna Takes the Stairs. The former featured Swanberg and writer/actor/director Michael Tully (Ping Pong Summer, Septien). Thus a repertory of ‘mumblecorps’ actors and directors took shape, moviemakers dedicated to interesting low budget work that ignored stars in favor of real people, chose simple awkwardness over gross-out comedy, and explored the difficulty of relationships rather than wallow in Hollywood murder, mayhem, and explosions. Many of these artists continued to evolve: Swanberg, Mark and Jay Duplass, Greta Gerwig, Lynn Shelton, and Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture,Girls). They have attained varying levels of success as writers, directors, and actors. Chad Hartigan, an actor in Katz’s first film, directed the charming This is Martin Bonner in 2013. That film featured a subtle knockout performance by Australian actor Paul Eenhoorn in the title role.
Which brings us back to Aaron Katz’s new film Land Ho!. After experimenting with a ‘mumblecorps’ mystery called Cold Weather, the director teamed up with Martha Stephens to write and direct this simple story of two retired 70-somethings sowing what wild oats they have left on a trip to Iceland. Eenhoorn is Colin, a former bank manager and recent widower, and Earl Lynn Nelson plays Mitch, Colin’s former brother-in-law and a recently retired physician. As no doubt suits the personalities of the actors, Colin is quiet and reserved while Mitch is a pot-smoking extrovert with women and sex never very far from his mind. As he did in Martin Bonner, Eenhoorn puts in a quiet, reflective performance. We spend as much time watching him as we do listening to him. His growing annoyance with his often-inappropriate friend wears him down in memorable ways.
There are no revelations or major confrontations in Land Ho!. The film moves forward through the exploration of character, not by way of the twists and turns of plot. Mitch generously paid for the trip in order to pull Colin out of a funk. As Mitch, Nelson is a sexed-up septuagenarian, as generous with his opinions as he is with his money. This actor, who was cast in Stephens’ earlier films, is — in real life — a pot-smoking 72-year old oculoplastic surgeon. (“I do surgery three days a week and I don’t party or rock and roll the nights before surgery,” he confesses).
Unlike younger ‘mumblecorps’ actors, the oldsters convey a deeper sense of lived experience, to the point that it is hard to imagine that the actors aren’t the same as the characters they play. Like Nelson, Mitch hails from New Orleans. He’s all piss and vinegar. He’s never without a opinion and everything comes down to sex. The two visit an art gallery and come upon an amateur painting of a nude. Colin reflects on the colors, while Mitch observes, “Look at those nipples, like ripe strawberries, and a belly button you could put a shot of tequila into. Now you can’t see the bush, but I’ll bet you it’s just as sweet as roses.” The scene was entirely improvised; it is refreshing to see older actors work so well being extemporaneous. They adroitly convey the contrasting attitudes of men who are no longer at their prime: the meditative Colin takes stock of what his later years will be worth and what life has been about; Mitch uses sexual bravado to ward off facing his fears of aging. His philosophy is resolutely elemental: “I ain’t dead yet.”
As in the earlier films of both Katz and Stephens, landscape becomes part of a film’s character. The craggy hills, hot springs, and geysers of Iceland provide a steely poetic contrast to the juvenile antics and meandering conversations of our aging antagonists.
Land Ho! is not without its flaws. There is a lazy tendency to rely too much on the guys acting foolishly to the accompaniment of pop music and to use the scenery as a predicable transitional device. The wit and conversation of these actors is interesting enough. The inclusion of silly comic montages, where the old guys try to feel youthful again, feels gratuitous and manipulative.
Still, the acting makes the film worth seeing. Minor characters are equally believable. Cameos by Karrie Crouse as Mitch’s niece and Elizabeth McKee as her friend are spot on. Even smaller parts are played with convincing ease. Benjamin Kasulke, who is actually a cinematographer, plays a newlywed who gets some questionable advice from Mitch one night at the hotel bar. Emmsjé Gauti appears as a drunk who offers the two men their first glow stick. The actor is a bartender whom the filmmakers cast on the spot. Alice Olivia Clarke plays a youngish Canadian black woman whom Colin meets in a hot spring toward the end of his journey. It’s a very sweet scene that works because the situation’s natural awkwardness is treated with patience. The actress is actually from Canada and has worked as a mosaic artist in Iceland for twenty years.
Performances from unknown or lesser-known actors can be unpredictable, but when non-actors are directed as skillfully as they are here the effect is quite satisfying, the unhurried honesty touching. Despite a few clichéd moments, Land Ho! is the product of the natural grace that Katz and Stephens have developed as filmmakers. The film is a welcome antidote to the barrage of summer blockbusters. It’s even likely that I’ll check out Iceland because, hey, I’m not dead yet.