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Ride the Eagle is a simple idea well executed. Comedies are often side-lined by the now dominant world of drama, a dark world of trauma, shrouded under clouds of misery, but the best break free from that monopoly, relying on sheer volumes of laughs, or, in Ride the Eagle’s case, by pairing amusement with heart-warming self-discovery.
Leif (Jake Johnson) is a lost, albeit content, drifter, spurred into action upon hearing of his estranged mother’s (Susan Sarandon) death. It is not a moment of personal tragedy, owing to their extremely distant relationship, but he is compelled to visit her Yosemite lake cabin after learning he will inherit it on the condition that he completes a number of challenges set by her, all centred around their reconnecting.
And so begins the real journey of Ride the Eagle, which is at heart a film about forgiveness. The itinerary, set by Honey (Leif’s mother), is rather blatant in its attempts to push the story forward, forcing Leif into making the right decisions every time. But each task is filled with a sense of charm, either by Johnson or whatever socially distant co-star he shares the scene with.
Filmed entirely during the pandemic, it effectively uses the isolated setting as a clever excuse for its scenes’ limited social contact. Yosemite also provides the necessary tranquillity to service the intimacy of Leif’s personal revelations, giving the story room to breathe.
Leif’s relationship with his gorgeous black Labrador, Nora, is an uncomplicated ploy to win the audience over, but supporting characters Audrey (D’Arcy Carden) Carl (J.K. Simmons) and Honey (Leif’s mother) all provide light, humorous and efficient cameos that successfully augment Leif’s journey. There is no doubt that Ride the Eagle benefits from the performances of Sarandon and Simmons, two Oscar winners. Audrey is an ex of 8 years, whom Leif reconnects with on the instructions of Honey; their on-screen, or over-the-phone, chemistry sells Leif’s growing realisation that he may have to change.
Simmons is certainly underutilised, though manages to amplify his small role’s importance to the story. Thankfully, though it threatened to be, his performance is not just a replica of the angry stalker he plays in Palm Springs; the humour and grief he seasons the performance with helps further the characterisation of Honey for both us and Leif. That is a nice touch too, how we and Leif are effectively on the same page in regards to our relationship with Honey, exposing how meaningful his forgiveness of her is.
Where Ride the Eagle falls down, however, is in its structure. The film often slides between moments of unhindered progression and overblown despair too abruptly, denying the chance for momentum to gather, which reduces the weight of Leif’s breakthroughs. They aren’t unimpactful, but there is more emotional potential than initially realised, something that could have happened if each subplot rose and fell in unison.
Its simplicity is a strength in parts, but the lack of complexity again results in total thematic unfulfillment. Forgiveness is the sole idea debated, which is a missed opportunity when Leif is provided with three key characters to challenge his views. If just one of them had brought another of Leif’s flaws to the sword, his eventual enlightenment would have felt more well-earned.
But, in spite of this, it is hard to feel cheated by Ride the Eagle. Director Trent O’Donnell, who co-wrote the screenplay with Johnson, gives the film a personal and authentic touch, which ultimately produces a satisfying and warm fable. It doesn’t rip up the playbook, nor threaten any side muscles, but the light jokes keep the story moving forwards.
Ride The Eagle will be available on Digital Download from 4th October