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'Around the Bend' sweet generational tale

Caine keeps drama from becoming sentimental contrivance
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

“Around the Bend” is a slick, well-packaged emotional drama.

Although the story often feels contrived, honest performances and smart direction keep it on just the right side of sentimental. High production values add a polished veneer to this Warner Independent Pictures release.

Top billing of Michael Caine and Christopher Walken will certainly be a box office draw, and the heart-warming story of family togetherness should go down well in today’s America. The main problem could be that a story involving four generations of men and no women might not hold much for female viewers. European audiences may find the film too mawkish.

The story begins with aging Henry Lair (Caine) on his deathbed, tended by his thirtysomething grandson, Jason (Josh Lucas), and his 6-year-old great-grandson, Zach (Jonah Bobo). The family gets on well enough until black sheep Turner (Christopher Walken) shows up to put a spanner in the works. Turner — Jason’s father and Henry’s son — is a former heroin addict who ignored the family. So Jason isn’t pleased to see his dad, though the ailing Henry is thrilled by his return.

Henry passes away of natural causes and leaves an unorthodox will inside a Kentucky Fried Chicken bag for Turner to administer. The surviving three generations of his family must take a road trip together, stopping off at various KFCs en route to receive further instructions. As the three journey through a picturesque desert landscape in New Mexico, the patriarch’s life lessons bend the broken trust between Turner and Jason.

The script, by first-time director Jordan Roberts, is smooth. Roberts says he rewrote the piece about 32 times over the years, and this shows in ways both negative and positive. Roberts certainly manages to hit all the desired notes while structuring a relatively complicated story in a clear fashion. But he has burnished the work so much that he’s polished away any edge. Even the tough denouement between father and son becomes lost in a swell of uplifting togetherness — it’s like a Sam Shepard play without any nasty bits.

Caine is excellent as the oldest member of the family. He brings just the right amount of pathos to the role and keeps it all natural. It’s very good acting indeed, combining grouchiness, childlike excitability and the mischievousness of the elderly into a well-rounded performance.

As soon as Caine is out of the picture, Walken shoulders the film. Walken, whose vertically brushed hairdo often distracts here, offers no surprises but adeptly delivers what’s required of him. Glenne Headly, who plays a Danish house servant, is the only letdown, playing an out-of-date “European” stereotype that would seem more at home in a film from the 1960s.

Good production values give the film an expensive look. Cinematography by Michael Grady (“Wonderland”) pictures both shiny big sunsets and the cramped quarters of the trio’s van with style.