The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
In movies, there’s “character driven,” and then there’s “CHARACTER driven.” Earl Lynn Nelson, who plays one of the two lead roles in “Land Ho!” a truly disarming and beguiling movie co-directed by Martha Stevens and Aaron Katz, seems from all indications to be an all-caps character. His exuberant sense of senior-citizen mischief is the motor that drives the movie.
Nelson plays Mitch, an aging surgeon who turns up at his newly-ex-brother-in-law Colin’s house one fine afternoon, ostensibly to cheer Colin up. Colin is played by Paul Eenhorn, who made a big impression among indie moviegoers with his work in the drama "This Is Martin Bonner," and, here, Eenhorn’s playing a character not unlike himself, an Australian transplant to the U.S. As for Nelson, and his character Mitch, they seem like good old boys through and through. The character Mitch is not your father’s son of the South, though. Sure, he is affable, possessed of a big appetite, and full of yarns; he’s also an unapologetic horndog and a persistent pot smoker. He’s the kind of good time that can drive a less exuberant person a little nuts, and you can see him starting to do that to Colin even before he drops his surprise announcement on his buddy: that he’s booked them both a first-class excursion to Iceland.
Colin responds to this with more than a little bemusement. Mitch responds, as he will, by describing how great it’s going to be, placing special emphasis on all the especially-good-in-Iceland food they’ll gorge on. Unimpressed, Colin remarks, “I don’t like lobster.”
Well, too bad: the pull of Mitch is irresistible. And soon enough, the two older fellas are in Reykjavik. Iceland, in this, functions rather like the Scottish highlands in the Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger movie "I Know Where I’m Going:" a very nearly enchanted land full of unusual geographic features that allows its characters to evolve to a new level. The comparison risks overselling what this movie’s about, though; while "I Know" is a grand romance, "Land Ho!" is not all that invested in narrative momentum; it’s of a modest, anecdotal scale. The environment is depicted beautifully, and the duo’s adventures, and occasional bickering, culminate in an episode that gives Colin’s character an opportunity for some healing. All the while, Mitch is his irrepressible self, throwing money around, advising a female cousin (once-removed) and her traveling friend to buy some “feminine” clothes for a dinner that evening, asking awkward personal questions of a honeymooning couple, and so on. He’ll have to reveal the vulnerability behind his brashness eventually, we know; as it happens, that vulnerability doesn’t collapse Mitch’s personality so much as justify it, an interesting route for the filmmakers to take.
Co-directors Katz and Stevens (Stevens, who directed Nelson in the indie “Pilgrim Song,” sold Katz on the collaboration by merely suggesting the idea of putting Nelson and Eenhorn in Iceland together) collect oodles of funny and lovely moments, merely recording their performers interacting with the environment, paying tribute to the natural beauty of Iceland (which, in my own experience, really IS a magical setting), while also presenting their actors/characters to the audience with real "what a piece of work is man" awe. "Land Ho!" is both a small film and an unabashed wannabe crowd pleaser, but it’s also one whose subtle capturing of behavior and longing resonates with clarity that stays with you.