Tribeca Reviews: On The Road with the Grim Reaper
Keeping a date with death may not sound like the most appealing way to walk out of one’s life and take to the road. But in Youth in Oregon, most recently screened at the 15th annual Tribeca Film Festival, a cross-country trip with actor Frank Langella and a stellar ensemble cast in this dark comedy is just what the doctor ordered.
Raymond Engersol is an irascible, cantankerous 80-year-old coot, who will have his way no matter what. Having suffered a heart attack two years before, and in a basically inoperable condition, this is one retired physician who knows his way around a diagnosis. Even when director Joel David Moore opens his film with Raymond’s bathroom mirror assessment of himself, facing the inevitable wasting away head-on, the actor recovers quickly enough when faced with his public — family or otherwise. Langella is one of the rare performers who can slowly dissolve around the edges — revealing the total vulnerability of what it means to be human — without ever compromising his inherent masculine power over us. Lucky theatre-goers will discover that same unique talent in his currently-running Broadway play, The Father.
When Raymond announces he’s off to Portland, Oregon to put an end to it all with a little legal assistance, he’s in complete control of his faculties. It’s his dysfunctional family — daughter Kate (Christina Applegate), son-in-law Brian (Billy Crudup), and their rebellious teenage daughter (Nicola Peltz) — that waste no time throwing one tantrum after another in protest. Perhaps the only family member who takes the whole affair with a grain of salt is Raymond’s wife, Estelle, played in a stoical, offhand fashion as only Mary Kay Place can do. Among her many credits, older audiences will remember her as the Emmy-winning Loretta Haggers in the hit TV comedy, Mary Hartman, Mary Harman (1976-1977). Most recently, she has starred in HBO’s winning series, Big Love. Here, we can be thankful that when Brian decides to drive his father-in-law back to his birthplace in hopes of persuading him against his final choice, Estelle is along for the ride. Place provides moments of raucous, wine-guzzling humor to offset the seriousness of the enterprise.
Not unlike most road movies, regardless of subject matter, there’s a series of stopovers along the way in an attempt to add a little color and spice to the undertaking. A hot air balloon festival, an aviary visit (Raymond is an avid bird watcher), and a halfway stopover, which unites Brian with his college drop-out son Nick (Alex Shaffer), is just part of this disjointed tale. Each encounter is meant to serve as a backdrop for Raymond’s mission. Will he or will he not go through with his plan? It’s a tawdry and tender stew concocted by screenwriter Andrew Eisen. In one of several affecting monologues while watching Estelle flirt with a nearby cowhand in a seedy bar, Raymond confesses his own impotence. Incontinence is yet another challenge.
There’s a string of story possibilities to unravel in this plot, not the least being Raymond’s desire along the route to say goodbye to his alienated son, Danny. Josh Lucas portrays a gay man who wants nothing more than to put distance between his father and an unwanted medical career. He’s an interesting and embittered character, who decides to join the caravan west if only to show his approval of his father’s ultimate decision. His roughhewn, laidback acceptance works in counterpoint to Brian’s edgy, tempestuous attempts to change Raymond’s mind. Lucas is currently playing a hardboiled detective with Debra Messing in the second season of NBC’s The Mysteries of Laura.
Billy Crudup as Brian, in contrast, is never better than when playing wired intensity in a character’s DNA. That quality has brought him numerous accolades for film, stage and TV roles, such as the leading role in the biopic Without Limits (1998) about long distance runner Steve Prefontaine and several Tony nominations for roles in The Elephant Man, The Pillowman and Arcadia. He manages, and it’s no easy task, to hold his share of the screen with Langella. In truth, it’s in his scenes with his father-in-law, who he alternately loves and resents, that he fares best. The scenes with Kate (though Applegate does her best to portray a wife and mother at the end of her rope) are fraught with a level of frustration and hysteria that diminishes rather than helps our compassion for them. Nicola Peltz plays a perfectly believable teen whose obsession with sending her boyfriend “selfies” of her budding nudity throws mother Kate into an understandable tailspin, forcing her to stay home rather than joining the others.
These are interesting plot twists, but given the gravitas of the subject and the central dilemma of its main character, the script could have been shaved a little cleaner. This would have allowed for more focus on yet another great performance by Langella’s Raymond. Raymond may not be Lear (a role Langella knows well), but he has a message for all of us.
I couldn’t help musing a bit on the title, Youth in Oregon. It is, after all, about euthanasia, not youth. Of course, Oregon did pass the Death with Dignity Act in 1994 with 51 percent of the vote, so that part works. Just let “youth” roll around on your tongue a bit, along with euth-a-nasia. Then consider Raymond. He’s a bird watcher, and it takes a lot of energy to wake up and follow all that chirping at the ripe old age of 80.
As for Moore, he made his debut in 2007 with Spiral, co-writing, co-directing and starring in this thriller. His sophomore feature was Killing Winston Jones (2014), starring Richard Dreyfuss and Danny Glover, among others. He obviously gained the confidence from an exceptionally fine cast to support this project. In commenting on the production, he remarked that “it’s a ride that I believe people will be entertained by, while challenging their beliefs on this issue. We all have to deal with death, and as the movement behind legal euthanasia grows, it’s good that there will be stories like this to help people deal with their own personal opinions on this very complicated subject.”
He’s a young director with a heart. And that’s a good thing.