Ride the Eagle is not a bad movie, but one that’s so aggressively mediocre that it starts to seem bad after a while. This very streamlined man-child-comes-of-age lark is so inoffensively relaxed in its perfunctory set-up and payoff that it’s difficult to loathe, but eventually the relaxed vibe starts to feel like coasting, at which point it becomes annoying. There are talented people involved at every creative level of this film, and it’s frustrating that they deserve better than this pat, by-the-numbers material.
That material was written with good intentions amid the most fraught circumstances: amid the COVID-19 production shut-down. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, writers Jake Johnson and Trent O’Donnell worked to create a concept that they could shoot even with most of the world in isolation. On that front, they succeeded – Johnson stars, O’Donnell directs, and they both produced, with much of the funding sourced from their personal bank accounts. The effort is admirable, but the resulting film feels less a product of spontaneous inspiration than one demonstrably limited by the circumstances of its creation.
Johnson, whose inimitable on-screen persona generates an offbeat, soulful slacker vibe, essentially writes himself to type as Leif, a fledgling musician who lives in the tiny guest house of his band’s manager, where he spends his days playing the bongos, casually smoking weed, and hanging with his dog, Nora (played by Johnson’s own pet). Leif’s carefree existence is interrupted when he receives news that his estranged mother has died and she’s left her expansive Yosemite cabin to him, but only under the condition that he completes a list of specific tasks. At this point, we’ve waded into the cross-section of the lazy-guy-is-forced-to-experience-the-world trope and the learning-to-love-your-estranged-parent-from-beyond-the-grave trope. If you’re assuming life’s lessons will soon abound, give yourself a gold star.
Susan Sarandon plays Leif’s mom, a hippie named Honey whose apparent absence from much of his life doesn’t track with the insistent sunniness of her personality, which is conveyed via a videotaped message from which she communicates her list of life-affirming tasks. Most of them – “Kill What You Eat,” for example – result in the sort of nauseating hijinks that belong in a movie far less sincere than this one. Others, like “Reconnect with The One That Got Away,” are ultimately sunk by the production limitations. D’Arcy Carden plays The One, and she generates legitimate comedic chemistry with Johnson in a series of heart-to-heart phone conversations that are filmed like a sketch comedy program and edited like a phone commercial, killing all the goodwill generated by the actors. Surely COVID travel restrictions impacted the filmmaking choices, but these sequences could be shot and edited in a way that conjures personal intimacy, and it’s a code these filmmakers were unable to crack.
The one supporting actor to turn up in person is J.K. Simmons – casting is the film’s strongest element, if you couldn’t tell – in an extended cameo where he sits in an awkwardly framed, harshly lit space and dialogues with a dead Susan Sarandon, a rough ask even for an Oscar winner. It’s hard to get offended by that sort of earnestness, but it’s easy to get annoyed by material that seems designed only to fit inside the limited box of a pandemic shoot. You could argue that those limitations are unavoidable, but other productions managed to eclipse that inherent obstruction (for all its detractors, Malcolm & Marie managed to mount a workable non-pandemic concept in the middle of the pandemic and pull it off seamlessly).
Beyond the production restrictions, though, are the self-imposed screenplay issues, for which Johnson and O’Donnell can blame only themselves. Working backwards from the mindset of “what can we shoot in a pandemic,” the screenwriters allowed the imposed environmental simplicity bleed into their themes and characters. Ride the Eagle feels like a shortcut movie, stripped not only of any location variance but also any palpable thematic depth.