Two long time, long distance friends, Mark (Daniel London), and Kurt (Will Oldman), have been separated by time and life when Kurt invites his old buddy on an impromptu camping trip. Sophomore filmmaker Kelly Reichhardt takes us on a road journey that shows, sometimes, we grow with life’s experience in “Old Joy.”
My Camping Trip with Kurt” could have an alternate title for this film that is long (very long) on extended, lyrical camera shots of the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. These languid interludes are little more than pretty filler for a film that runs a mere 73 minutes as Mark and Kurt fill each other in on what has taken place in their lives. Mark is the responsible one with a good job, a pregnant wife and an unpretentious home. Kurt is a free spirit, apparently without ambition, who smokes pot and spends his time searching for the meaning of life. Close in their younger years, the pair have gone their separate paths and have little in common anymore. Their trip helps them find that spark that made them friends all those years ago.
Some critics are touting “old Joy” as a masterpiece but I wouldn’t go that far. It is an interesting story of divergent personal philosophies as Mark and Kurt put forth their experiences and opinions that have made them go their separate ways. Mark’s seemingly secure life represents the conventional path while Kurt’s “live life to its fullest” attitude doesn’t adhere to the standards of his friend. They wax eloquent, especially Kurt, on what they’ve done and where they are going, much like “My Dinner with Andre” (hence my alternate title).
The plethora of extended camera shots of Oregon’s mountains and valleys pad out what really could have been a short film. Co-writer-director Kelly Reichardt, adapting a short story by and with Justine Kurland, does a good job of presenting her characters’ views of life. More of this philosophizing would have helped enrich the film that relies, far too much, on its travelogue photography (expertly handled by Peter Sillen). “Old Joy” is padded with its nice cinematography used too much in lieu of dialog.
Reichardt shows skill maneuvering her small cast as Will and Mark head for their destination – a hot springs in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. A more effusive script would have been a plus and removed the feel of a short film cloaked in feature length clothes. Will Oldman, as Kurt, has the best monologues as he tells his friend about his life experiences that fuel his free spirit. Daniel London, the more conventional traveler of the duet, is a sounding board for Kurt and sees that his friend’s alternative, carefree life style has its appeals. Neither changes too much during their brief interlude together but they do become close once again after swapping stories of their pasts. I give it a B-Laura:
When Mark (Daniel London, "Lisa Picard Is Famous," "Rent") is called by his old buddy Kurt (Will Oldham, "Junebug") to go on a weekend camping trip, Mark's heavily pregnant wife (Tanya Smith) isn't thrilled with the idea. But Mark jumps at the chance and is soon on the road with a friend he'd left behind. Theirs is a friendship of "Old Joy."
Cowriter (with Jonathan Raymond)/editor/director Kelly Reichardt's ("River of Grass") film has been received by some as the second coming, but it is a far simpler thing. "Old Joy" is both a celebration of the verdant beauty of the Pacific Northwest and a requiem to male maturation.
It is clear from the outset that Mark and Kurt are no longer on equal footing. 'Can we use your car?' Kurt asks, his own the type of heap owned by starving college kids. Mark maintains patient composure as Kurt smokes pot and proceeds to get them lost. After camping next to a dumping ground, the duo find a diner where Kurt tries to make the best of things as Mark takes calls from his wife in private and complains about how the trip is going. To Kurt's face, Mark expresses confidence in Kurt's abilities.
Kurt spots the arrow nailed to a tree that marks the spot he's been telling Mark about, an arrow it would have been nigh on impossible to see the night before. The two hike into the woods as Lucy, Mark's happy go lucky dog, bounds all around them. Mark regales Kurt with stories of his good deed doing and Kurt expresses admiration and pride in Mark's community service. Mark offers a weak attempt at returning the compliment. But then something magical happens. The rustic wooden steam/soak house Kurt has been so eager to share with Mark appears like a Japanese tree house. Within this calming place, where all one can hear is the running of water and song of birds, the two genuinely commune. Kurt spins incredible stories out of mundane experiences as Mark floats and listens. The camera (cinematography by Peter Sillen, "Benjamin Smoke") lingers over Mark's incredibly symmetrical face, the curve of his eyebrows reflected in the bow of his upper lip. And then their time is over. A drive home is followed by an abrupt leave taking as Mark drops Kurt off at his apartment in a shabby part of town. Kurt wanders the city, bypassing a panhandler, then returning to give money, his own form of 'community service' that Mark tried and failed to imply.
Reichardt's short film (less than eighty minutes) contrasts the tenseness of urban life with the restorative powers of nature, but her two old friends have so clearly grown apart at film's beginning, there's little to learn about this friendship. 'Sorrow is just but worn out joy,' Kurt says he was told in a dream, a clear indication of the state of their relationship. And yet, there's something about the mood of this film that grows on one. Much of the film's running time is spent observing the trip - from a car-mounted camera, from a car travelling behind - to meditative music by Yo La Tengo and while it may strike some as boring, it does have a cumulative build.
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