After seeing so many movies lately that were made pre-pandemic (as well as a handful quite obviously made during), it was genuinely refreshing to see a film about a character who is leaving his own self-isolation and finally returning to the world at large on his own terms. Although it’s not immediately apparent, Ride the Eagle was shot in the last year and a half. But it certainly isn’t directly about being cooped up inside and away from other people. If anything, that’s the life that lead character and aspiring musician Leif (Jake Johnson, who co-wrote with director Trent O’Donnell) led for many years by choice. It isn’t until he receives word that his estranged mother Honey (Susan Sarandon) has died that he opts to walk away from his world and take a peak at how she lived, in a stunning cabin near California’s Yosemite National Park.
It turns out, Honey left the cabin to Leif in her will, but conditionally. He must view a series of video recordings she’s left him, packed with life lessons and a series of tasks he must complete in order to get the cabin (yes, this means we really only see Sarandon on a television, but it’s better than not seeing her at all). Accompanied by his canine best friend, Leif begins to carry out her wishes in an effort to better discover what kind of life she’d been living (seemingly every available cabinet in the house is filled with weed or magic mushrooms, if that gives you any indication), but also because he seems fairly open to the idea of taking this strange journey to a free house. Not being especially close to Honey, he doesn’t ever come across as particularly mournful, but by the end of this odd journey, his appreciation for the inheritance is perhaps replaced by a genuine regret that he didn’t know his mother better during her lifetime.
The list includes such seemingly innocuous tasks as going into a neighbor’s house and leaving a hostile note from Honey, to more meaningful exercises such as reaching out to “the one that got away,” who in Leif’s case is Audrey (D’Arcy Carden, from “The Good Place”). Their phone calls are charming, sexy, and seem to set the stage for a reunion that doesn’t quite turn out the way we imagine because she’s still freshly broken up from a long-term relationship. Still, the film is exponentially better for Audrey’s presence, and their conversations probably reveal more about Leif’s mildly aimless history than anything else in the movie.
Later in the film, we are also introduced to Honey’s recent ex-lover Carl (J.K. Simmons), who isn’t aware that Honey has died and mistakes Leif for her new boy toy. Their conversations about her are quite funny, but again, the film designs itself to help us learn more about someone through the art of conversation. Carl is full of insight (perhaps too much of a sexual nature for Leif’s tastes) about Honey’s passions and her impact on others, and it’s through his grieving that we begin to have real affection for this complicated woman, who apparently was a part of a commune/cult for many years, which Leif wanted no part of.
Johnson and O’Donnell worked together closely for many years on Johnson’s long-running series “New Girl” (O’Donnell was a producer/director for the show), and it’s not difficult to see the connective tissue between that show’s Nick Miller and Ride the Eagle’s Leif. They are both cynical enough to be cautious about new things, but go-with-the-flow enough not to reject them entirely, especially if they believe experiencing something new might better them in some way—emotionally, financially, etc. But Leif is a bit more fragile than Nick in some ways. For a portion of the film, Leif believes his beloved dog has gone missing, and the panic that ensues is both more than one might expect and sincerely heartbreaking.
As I’d expected from the beginning of the film’s premise, Honey’s tasks and whether they are completed aren’t really monitored by anyone; they are more for Leif’s benefit and a way for Honey to hopefully feel like she accomplished some mothering in her time on earth. But the journey and the slight ways in which Leif betters himself and gets out of his own rut are funny and sometimes moving. Ride the Eagle isn’t going for big, emotional swings or moments, mostly because real-life changes don’t usually happen the way they do in the movies. It’s about small, incremental adjustments that accumulate and eventually turn into something more substantial. The film understands that, and as a result, this story is one worth exploring and these characters are people you actually enjoy spending time with for 90 minutes.
The film opens Friday in theaters and via VOD.
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