AROUND THE BEND ** 1/2
STARRING: Christopher Walken, Josh Lucas, Michael Caine, Jonah Bobo
DIRECTOR: Jordan Roberts
RUNNING TIME: 85 minutes
RATING: R for language
THE LOWDOWN: Three generations of men bond on a road trip in New Mexico.
There's something irresistible about road movies. Not those sophomoric ones where young men pursue girls and beer, but rather the odysseys wherein people share experiences and adventures at a leisurely pace. There can be revelation on the road, too, as "The Motorcycle Diaries" is currently demonstrating to great acclaim.
And there's also something irresistible -- even though it has been done to death lately -- about the gradual development of friendship between people who don't get along at first.
What you get is just a nice, little film. This is especially disappointing in view of the fact that, on top of everything else, it stars Michael Caine and Christopher Walken, both in fine form.
Caine is wonderful as Henry Lair, a dying archaeologist who is researching the funeral rituals of various cultures in search of an appropriate one for his "tribe" to perform for him. This "tribe" consists of Henry; his adult grandson, Jason (Josh Lucas); and Jason's 6-year-old son, Zach (the delightfully natural Jonah Bobo), of whom Jason has custody while his estranged wife paints in Nepal. Jason is tightly wound and conventional -- a total contrast to the eccentric grandfather who raised him.
One day, Henry's son and Jason's father, Turner, who took off shortly after Jason's mother died 30 years before, shows up unexpectedly, looking every bit the thief and ex-junkie that he is. (And who better to play him than Walken?) Henry is thrilled at the return of his prodigal son; Jason, understandably, is hostile.
Henry relishes the family's one evening together at KFC, and when he dies shortly after, his will instructs them to open, one at a time, notes and maps he has crumpled up inside of several KFC bags. These will lead Jason, Turner and Zach to various sites where they are to spread his ashes, using Henry's funky, old VW van as transportation.
Directions left by an archaeologist: The possibilities are so rich! There could have been family artifacts for the threesome to dig up, people from other cultures to encounter, maybe a little magic or danger. Any of these would have allowed the Lairs to learn a lot about each other and grow closer, which, naturally, was Henry's intention. (A bit of deja vu, no doubt, for Caine, who healed old rifts through postmortem directives in "Last Orders.")
The trio grows closer but actually learns very little about each other, and we're left in the dark, too. The most interesting Lair, Henry, gets the shortest screen time.
While it's admirable that writer-director Jordan Roberts avoids sentimentality, the film is too consistently low-key. We get to see Walken dancing in the desert, but the only real excitement on the trip -- the revelation of a family secret -- is rushed to an unconvincingly pat resolution. The time it needs is squandered on Glenne Headly's silly portrayal of Henry's Danish nurse -- a throwback to "Laugh-In" -- and on various other unfunny secondary characters.
The film hovers at gently humorous and touching, never breaking through to its full potential. That, frustratingly, remains just around the bend.