Around the Bend

"A "Big Fish" out of water.

In 2003 we were blessed with two imaginative father/son explorations: "Big Fish" and "The Barbarian Invasions." In both, the challenge of facing a father's imminent death and discovering who he is before he goes is the pivotal action that as well drew sisters and mothers to the magnetic presence of death. Unfortunately, new writer/director Jordan Roberts' 2004 "Around the Bend" needs to get around the bend from cute to mature in order to compete with last year's deeply moving and amusing treatments of this universal subject.

Great grandpa Henry Lair (Michael Caine, "Quiet American") is on his way out, but not before he summons estranged ex-con son Turner (Christopher Walken "Stepford Wives"), much to the chagrin of grandson Jason (Josh Lucas, "Sweet Home Alabama") but the delight of grandson Zach (Jonah Bobo, "Best Thief in the World"). Turner abandoned son Jason long ago after the death of his mother, and Henry is determined to have the family face the reason before he goes to the great KFC in the sky (Taking product placement to new heights, they eat several times at the chicken "restaurant"). That's the set up. The films then relies on cliches and stereotypes to tell an eccentric story rather than rely on smart dialogue without tinkling piano to telegraph meaning and emotion.

That the kid is cute and hip fits in the formula along with the loveable dogs, the old microbus, and the quick understandings, tears, and reconciliations utterly impossible in a short (merciful 85 min.) film that has little but sentimentality. It is a picaresque as well although the journey rarely offers drama equal to the theme (Is a closed KFC really a bad thing?). Even my trip with my son through New Mexico and Arizona in VW bus yielded more insight than "Bend's" contrived odyssey.

Yes, Walken is still watchable, and director Roberts makes sure he dances in front of a campfire to add more eccentricity and feature the actor's considerable talent from his early days in Broadway musical. However, close ups of the weathered Walken and Caine can't cover for the lack of depth. Perhaps the absence of women, except for the regrettably unconnected role of Glenne Headly as the randy nurse, is the fault because we all know women are better at this connecting business than we. Not to have them involved in the grieving and letting-go business is to set your movie up for only a cute kid and crusty old men.

"Around the Bend" is a "Big Fish" out of water.