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Brandon Judell

Old Joy: Two Hippies Go On A Car Ride
Daniel London and Will Oldham. Courtesy Kino International.

By Brandon Judell

After the screening I attended of "Old Joy," one slightly disgruntled critic came up to me, complaining, "This isn't a film. There's no arc. No action."

"Ah!" I responded. "For stoned hippies, this is 'Star Wars,' "

But for the rest of us, this languid road film will be almost a meditation. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I blissed out into slumber for a short while during the film's commencement, only to awaken refreshed and joyful, ready to embrace the world and the rest of "Old Joy."

As my eyes adjusted, I was momentarily afraid I might have missed some important onscreen occurrence. That fear was quickly dispelled. It's clear that co-writers Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt are going for the quintessence of soul exploration. Think more mantra than screenplay.

The simple "plot" has two timeworn friends reuniting for a weekend camping trek in the Cascade mountain range east of Portland, Oregon.

Mark (Daniel London), a skinny melink of a chap, is a mostly sedate bohemian whose wife is about to give birth. Spurts of anxiety although now and again do cross his brow.

His buddy Kurt (Will Oldham), who initiated what is hopefully to be karmic jaunt, is a bearded, balding, slightly pot-bellied wanderlust who is trying to rekindle his ebbing friendship with Mark.

Well, with Mark's swollen wife's passive/aggressive misgivings, the two guys get into a car and drive and drive and drive. We, along with the "heroes," get to watch the passing trees, the paved roads, and the blue skies accompanied by You La Tengo's calming melodies.

The guys eventually get lost, after which they chat, they settle down in a tent for a night, they chat some more, they bathe in the woods, and then they go home.

What's quite amazing is how director/editor Reichardt gets us to care so much about so seemingly little.

Even the casting is a bit surprising. No Jared Letos here to rest our eyes upon. London and Oldham both at first seem to have strictly character-actor faces, but as cinematographer Peter Sillen's camera constantly probes their pores an odd beauty seems to erupt from each.

And there is a tension here. Mark is nearly ready to embrace the responsibilities of his on-coming fatherhood. Kurt, with his love for Mark bordering on the homoerotic, has not emotionally matured, and he's jealous of all that separates his buddy from him. Kurt would like to just pal around with Mark daily doing nothing much. He's the kind of guy Frisbees were invented for.

In the end, if you are not afraid of tranquility, if your favorite part of Antonioni's "Blowup" is the tennis game with the imaginary ball, or if you carry a joint in your Velamints tin, "Old Joy" will be your joy.

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Executive Producers: Todd Haynes, Joshua Blum, Rajen Savjani, Mike Ryan
Music: Yo La Tengo, performed with Smokey Hormel
Cast: Will Oldham, Daniel London, Tanya Smith


Copyright © Brandon Judell 2006

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