Aaron Katz, director of mumblecore-ish twentysomething chronicles Quiet City (basically a less chatty Before Sunrise set in Brooklyn) and Cold Weather (basically Brick or Nancy Drew after washing out of grad school), has honed such a singular voice over a handful of films that I was surprised to see that he shares both writing and directing credit on Land Ho! Watching the movie, though, it starts to seem appropriate that Katz and collaborator Martha Stephens would work together: it’s a two-person show in front of the screen, too. The movie follows Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson), an American, and Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), an Australian, on a vacation to Iceland. They used to be in-laws; they’ve been separated and now reunited by a divorce, a death, and another divorce.
Mitch, being the brash American, is the type to insist on an Icelandic jaunt, a spur-of-the-moment proposition for the more sensible, soft-spoken Colin. Land Ho! ably sets up their contrasting personalities, but it’s not about a bickering odd couple. It’s also not a Weinstein/Fox Searchlight style movie about older folks getting their groove back; it’s not even an Amour-style stare into the waiting abyss. Instead, it’s a gentle, oddly captivating travelogue, of a piece with Katz’s observant previous work.
Here, Katz and Stephens observe the Icelandic scenery with their camera, using lots of slow pans and push-ins, and if the scenery-gazing tends toward the generic (I prefer Katz’s eye for the cityscapes of his previous films), the two leading men make for excellent company. Nelson’s New Orleans-ish accent and Eenhoorn’s Australian hum have an interlocking musicality and an instant sense of lived-in familiarity. By the end of the movie, I’d convinced myself I’d probably seen them both before in other roles; IMDB begs to differ. Regardless, they’re both terrific.
Mitch and Colin are the focus of Land Ho! but are not the only characters. For a section in the middle of the film, they meet up with Mitch’s twentysomething cousin (once-removed), who could be out of one of Katz’s earlier projects. In fact, she kind of is: Karrie Crouse from Quiet City plays the part with an amusing deadpan at her uncle-like cousin’s enthusiasms. She’s traveling with a female friend, but the movie never lets the men get creepy about it; it’s oddly poignant, in fact, the way that Mitch’s proximity to their younger, more spry company lights him up.
Besides scenery, that’s the recipe for much of Land Ho!: more talk than action. Some of it is casual, about using Facebook or trying to remember the name of a movie; some of it touches on the profound, though never with a heavy hand. Cold Weather and even Quiet City have built-in suspense (however small-scale) over how the movie’s events will shape the lives of their twentysomethings for the days or even years that will follow. The guys in Land Ho! are already retired; their accounts seem more or less settled. Yet similarly quiet existentialism creeps in: These characters, too, are unsure of their futures. That uncertainty keeps the movie from succumbing to phony uplift, even (or especially) as it glides toward a sweet, even life-affirming, end.