I’ve always wanted to go to Iceland. Haven’t you always wanted to go to Iceland?
“Land Ho!” takes us to Iceland.
The movie is a marvelous slice of lo-fi whimsy about two duffers, longtime acquaintances in the gray zone between middle age and old age, who up and travel from Kentucky to the Land of Fire and Ice. Why? Because life’s short and getting shorter, and because Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) is one of those annoying, necessary friends who come up with crackpot schemes and actually follow through with them. Low on incident and high on scenery and attitude, “Land Ho!” is a hot spring of a movie: It fizzes a lot, and you come out feeling better than you went in.
I think it matters that one of the players is a pro and the other’s a found object. The Australia-born Paul Eenhoorn has been acting since his teens but has popped up here only in small festival films, like last year’s wistful “This is Martin Bonner.” His character, Colin, is a recent widower and a quiet, thoughtful man — a watcher, not a doer. His ex-brother-in-law, Mitch, is the opposite, a retired eye surgeon who walks and talks with gravel-voiced exuberance and who lacks most, if not all, conversational filters. In fact, Nelson is a retired eye surgeon and the cousin of co-director Martha Stephens. He’s like the relative who crowds into family photos until he’s right at its center. Some people are born stars.
In his 70s, Mitch still likes to get high and his attitude toward women — including his ex, the sister of Colin’s late wife — would probably get him fired and possibly did. His age and zest for life keep him on the cute side — just. Sensing a bonding experience in the making, he pays for the morose Colin’s airfare and whisks the two to Reykjavik.
So it’s a road movie and an old-folks-reconnect-with-life movie, both of which you’ve seen but probably not like this — not favoring a slow gathering of event and observation over the expected dramatic beats. “Land Ho!” was shot by Andrew Reed during October, so the whole of Iceland is one long, gorgeous Golden Hour; the glaciers, geysers, and mountain ranges of the island’s Ring Road form a backdrop to a handcrafted drama about coming to terms with time’s passing.
Colin’s one of those men who has been old since his 20s. Mitch hasn’t ever acted his age and isn’t about to start. Their adventures in the nightclubs of Reykjavik and in the backcountry are consciously small-scale against this vast geological canvas, their interactions with the locals and other fellow travelers goofy and telling. Somewhere along the line, “Land Ho!” steps gently off the edge into the cosmic, and both we in the audience and the characters on the screen suddenly understand larger matters are at hand.
Nelson, with his hammy line-readings and horndog tendencies, will either have you laughing or gritting your teeth; the proper response is probably both. Part of the comedy here lies in the collision of Mitch’s Id with Colin’s meticulous Super-Ego, beer and volcanos and 24 hours of afternoon light pushing both men toward a middle ground. At times the movie feels like “Sideways” 30 years later and right-side up.
Stephens’s co-director is Aaron Katz — both wrote the script — whose earlier movies also have a lot going on beneath a surface of not-much. (2011’s “Cold Weather,” in particular, is a winning slacker detective story.) There are no villains in his and Stephens’s work, just a lot of muddled humans walking around the outside of their lives knocking on doors, hoping one will open. In “Land Ho!,” the door opens onto an entire landscape of renewal, reckoning, and possibilities. According to the filmmakers, the film’s title pretty much came out of a hat. That’s only part of the reason it’s perfect.