A film that’s more interesting due to its circumstances – it was made under strict pandemic rules – rather than the actual story put forth, Ride the Eagle is sweet and well-intentioned, but can’t entirely execute its premise with any flare or depth.
A take-at-face-value type dramedy, Trent O’Donnell‘s film centres on the lowly Leif (Jake Johnson, who also co-wrote the script with O’Donnell), a musician living in a single-room cabin in the woods with his dog. A cheery visit from a family friend (Cleo King, providing the film with the jolt of energy it so desperately needs) informs Leif that his mother, Honey (Susan Sarandon), has passed away, and there’s a few stipulations in her will that Leif must abide by in order to secure her cabin, a vast three-storey structure, that she has left for him; should he not fulfil her wishes the cabin will be sold and the money will be donated to a charity.
It’s evident that Leif and Honey didn’t have the strongest relationship, so there’s already something of an emotional disconnect when he hears of her passing. Seemingly agreeing to her “rules” to earn the cabin for his own residential benefit, rather than out of any attachment to his mother, the “interaction” between the two – Honey has filmed a series of videos detailing each step she’d like him to take – comes off as light and conversational, rather than seated in any loving bond, meaning his decision to go along with her requests don’t seem entirely in character.
Either way, O’Donnell and Johnson’s story projects itself forward with Leif agreeing to each task, tasks that are apparently created in a bid to teach him important life lessons. The first, involving Leif breaking and entering into the house of one of Honey’s former beaus (J.K. Simmons), feels more just like him doing her last bit of dirty work – this sequence could have been entirely exorcised from the film without any change to its overall structure – though her asking him to call “the one that got away” leads to the film’s undoubtable highlight; Audrey (D’Arcy Carden), initially playing with him by suggesting she doesn’t know who he is, injects such a loving, warm presence into the film that you wish the whole 85 minutes would just be devoted to them reminiscing over their history.
Given that this was made during the pandemic, it makes sense that so few people ever occupy the screen at the same time, but it also means that Johnson is essentially carrying the film, and though he’s a likeable actor, he doesn’t hone the presence yet to sustain undivided attention. Carden, whose scenes are all split-screen with Johnson due to their interaction being solely over the phone, fares the best out of the ensemble (can we give this woman her own starring role yet?), and that includes Sarandon and Simmons who are, sadly, saddled with some questionable dialogue throughout.
Ride the Eagle so desperately wants to be liked, and there’s merit in how it navigated restrictions, but in spite of all its soaring intentions, it has to settle for a muted flight path.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Ride the Eagle is screening in select Australian cinemas from September 9th, 2021 in QLD, WA, SA, TAS and NT, and from September 23rd in ACT, VIC and regional NSW.