Thursday, October 14, 2004

Inscrutable actor Christopher Walken always presents a hard sell to indifferent moviegoers, but in recent years his broken line readings have only amplified his curiosity factor.

Bringing Mr. Walken to play the pivotal role in “Around the Bend,” a so-precious-it-hurts dramedy, all but dooms the story’s dysfunctional reunion.

Untested writer/director Jordan Roberts based the drama on his own experiences with an absentee father figure. The first-timer assembles a fine cast, including Michael Caine as the family patriarch, but appears adrift on just how to anchor his quirky saga.

“Bend” opens as Turner Lair (Mr. Walken) appears out of nowhere on the doorstep of his son Jason (Josh Lucas) and grandson Zach.

Turner’s visit proves timely, as his father, old Henry Lair (Mr. Caine), a retired archaeologist, dies shortly thereafter while gnawing on a last meal at KFC.



“Around the Bend” isn’t much of a feature, but it makes a fine infomercial for the chicken chain, so intertwined is its menu with the narrative.

The old-timer seemed to know his end was near, since he scribbled an elaborate death ritual he wanted his family to perform. He placed the instructions in several KFC bags to be opened after his passing.

Essentially, the remaining Lair men must go on the proverbial road trip to scatter Henry’s ashes around the country. The excursion is Henry’s parting gift to his splintered clan, a last chance to heal old wounds.

Along the way, the Lairs discover not only something about themselves but just why Turner dropped out of all their lives so many years ago.

But instead of catharsis we get dramatic overkill.

It’s good to see Mr. Walken play a character not attached to a lame action comedy. Recent turns in 2003’s “Kangaroo Jack” and “The Rundown” threatened to turn the Oscar winner into a walking self-parody.

But Turner isn’t the restorative role for which we hoped. He’s a collection of quirks and pained expressions, none of which establish any credible motive for his behavior.

It would take a steadier hand than Mr. Roberts’ to spin the film’s few near magical moments into a sustainable plot. We’ll swallow Henry knowing his time is near, but predicting his own dog’s demise, too? And must young Zach’s character be so earnest?

The main characters trudge from one lugubrious set piece to another, with neither comic nor dramatic momentum ever building.

The movie’s whimsical score only reaffirms its unsteady tone.

“Around the Bend’s” traveling sideshow of infighting feels like being trapped in the back of the family station wagon during an interminable road trip.

**

TITLE: “Around the Bend”

RATING: R (Coarse language, adult themes)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Jordan Roberts. Music composed by David Baerwald.

RUNNING TIME: 85 minutes

WEB SITE: www.wip.warnerbros.com/aroundthebend/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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