Ride the Eagle (2021)
Director: Trent O’Donnell
Screenwriters: Jake Johnson, Trent O’Donnell
Starring: Jake Johnson, Susan Sarandon, D’Arcy Carden, J.K. Simmons
Fresh out of the pandemic comes Jake Johnson and Trent O’Donnell’s newest collaboration, Ride The Eagle. The pair, who worked alongside one another on the hit comedy TV series ‘New Girl’ for several years, pieced their project together over the course of lockdown. As such, they were among the first to tackle the logistics of filmmaking following the outbreak of Covid-19. Having realised and executed their film safely during one of the biggest health crises in history, in many ways Ride The Eagle is a product of innovative thinking and adapting to circumstance. Its very existence is a reminder that cinema and the arts will continue to adapt and thrive no matter what the world has up its sleeve.
The film stars Jake Johnson as Leif, an ageing bro and struggling musician with mommy issues. Leif (conveniently) is the kind of person who enjoys isolation; he lives alone in a log cabin with only his wise and faithful dog Nora (played by Nora, Johnson’s own rescue dog) as a companion. After hearing about the death of his estranged mother, Honey (Susan Sarandon), who abandoned him at the age of twelve to run away with a zany New Age cult, Leif discovers an unusual arrangement regarding his inheritance. Honey’s large Californian home, situated in the secluded Yosemite national park, could be his, should he choose to complete the set number of tasks Honey prepared for him before her death.
Leif chooses to travel to Yosemite, where he happens upon instructions – several recorded VHS messages Honey uses to communicate with him posthumously – and a substantial amount of marijuana. Honey guides Leif through several tasks, some riskier than others, in a last-ditch attempt to parent him and pass on some enriching life lessons, hoping this will allow him to forgive her and let go of any childhood pain and resentment that might hold him back. Among other tasks, Honey has Leif learn how to catch fish with his bare hands and encourages him to call and apologise to his ex-girlfriend so that he might begin to take more responsibility over his life. With the completion of each task, we see Leif begin to evolve and apply Honey’s lessons to his own life. Eventually, he wonders if there might be more to life than existing in isolation and more to achieve in his musical career than tagging onto a hipster band unironically named Restaurant. Along the way, Leif runs into several exciting faces, including his mother’s crazed ex-boyfriend (J.K Simmons), to whom Leif delivers his mother’s departing message, and the girl who got away, otherwise known as Audrey (D’Arcy Carden), who Leif reconnects with via awkward phone calls as part of his mother’s dying demands.
Ride the Eagle is a product of lockdown and probably wouldn’t exist in the same way or even at all if it hadn’t been for the many restrictions we all faced throughout 2020. The film will seem impressive to the audiences willing to bear those many restrictions in mind; however, for those who are eager to avoid any reminder of the pandemic, this probably isn’t the film for you. Ride The Eagle cleverly dances around its limitations. Yet, although the film doesn’t ever actually mention the pandemic, it’s transparently covid friendly and, as a result, is unable to spread its legs to its fullest extent. Although funny and charming, Leif and Audrey’s split-screen phone conversations start to drag on and subsequently fail to muster up the same emotion as physical communication, and Leif’s isolation and socially distanced interactions begin to feel somewhat forced as the movie wears on. It seems as if Johnson and O’Donnell were more interested in constructing their story around finding clever ways to combat covid restrictions. With such devoted attention to logistics, the overall narrative surrounding the middle-aged dude working through his issues becomes disappointingly unoriginal and vanilla.
This isn’t to say the film suffers as a whole. Jake Johnson’s self-deprecating, man-child humour fits in very well with this tale. Johnson manages to bring Leif into existence without leaning too heavily on his Nick Millerisms. Leif is very much his own man, willing enough to mature and lean into his emotions surrounding grief and the loss of his mother—a woman who Leif consistently reminds us he didn’t even know that well. Johnson, who, for the most part, spends the entire film in isolation, copes marvellously, holding the film together alone, drawing humour out of one-sided conversations with the memory of his dead mother and his adorable and surprisingly charismatic dog. His work here resembles his collaborations with famed mumblecore director Joe Swanberg, with the low-budget stylings, meandering pace and everyman narrative lending the film its humanistic and painfully familiar edge.
Ride the Eagle is a charming piece of work that achieves a delicate balance between comedy and tragedy. The film is serious enough to explore the meaning of family and past traumas, reminding us that it’s never too late to reach out, make amends and begin to heal. On the other hand, the film also packs in some hearty laughs, making us squirm and chuckle as Leif awkwardly navigates his assignments alongside one wayward phone sex experiment. As the film begins to hit its stride, we also tap into the nuances of Leif’s surprising emotional journey as he begins to form a relationship with a mother he has already learned to live without. O’Donnell navigates this intricate tonal blend well, throwing in the right amount of meaningful story beats to stop his narrative from feeling mawkish while keeping a fun and uplifting atmosphere with a healthy mix of humour and lunacy.
If you were inclined to pull at this movie’s many wayward threads, the whole thing could unravel very quickly. Why Leif puts himself through the ordeal, watches the tapes and completes his mother’s requests is unclear—there isn’t anybody around to actually check he’s sticking to his end of the bargain. However, the film’s heart-warming mood and adorable, scene-stealing debut performance from Nora the dog is guaranteed to bring smiles to the faces of all who watch.
Ride the Eagle is a step in the right direction for cinema as we navigate our way out of lockdowns and restrictions and back into normality.