When do 85 minutes feel like a lifetime? When you’re watching “Around the Bend,” the debut movie from writer-director Jordan Roberts. According to the movie’s web site, Roberts went through 32 different drafts of the script. Having seen the movie, I can honestly say he could have written 1,800 drafts and the movie would still suck. “Around the Bend” is what I call an “Awww…” movie, meaning every element of the production conspires to make you let out a sentimental sigh. And since the script and the director want so badly to warm your heart, nary an honest moment is to be found.
The plot concerns Jason Lair (Josh Lucas), a banker with a six-year-old son named Zach (Jonah Bobo). Jason cares for his ailing archeologist grandfather, Henry (Michael Caine). Henry warns Jason at the beginning of the movie that he will soon die and requests that he, Jason and Zach go on one last road trip. When Jason’s absentee father, Turner (Christopher Walken), shows up after decades away, Henry hatches a scheme to bring father and son together. With Kentucky Fried Chicken employees as his witnesses, Henry makes the terms of inheriting his wealth contingent on Jason, Turner and Zach driving around to various KFC restaurants, sprinkling ashes from his cremated body nearby.
That much whimsy should be illegal. The “plot twist” is a giant advertisement for KFC. But that’s just the tip of the “Around the Bend” iceberg. We also get little Zach asking Jason questions like, “Why did your daddy leave you? Did you do something wrong?” This is so we can all swoon at the profundity of a child’s simple question. And then go, “Awww…” Roberts should be ashamed of having to steal a narrative device from banal kiddy classic, “Children’s Letters to God.”
But wait, I should apologize for that last sentence. I’m going about this the wrong way. Clearly, recycling made-for-television movie clich퀌�s is a stylistic choice on Roberts’ part. Let’s call it the Lifetime Original Movie School of Film. This school is known for plots in which the hero rescues a dog from its mean owner, one or two characters dance to a popular song inhibition-free and somebody ends up with a terminal illness. And Roberts has obviously done his homework, because “Around The Bend” has all three.
As an aspiring filmmaker, I was horrified to see in the credits of “Around The Bend” that it was partially financed by the Sundance Institute. Yes, the Sundance Institute. The one that helped finance such indie masterpieces as “Hard Eight” and “Reservoir Dogs.” God only knows why they’re helping Jordan Roberts. Maybe it’s the fact that “Around The Bend” is so saccharine and sentimental that Roberts undoubtedly has a three-picture deal waiting for him at a major studio. And that means someone at Sundance gets to put on his or her resume that they gave writer-director Jordan Roberts his first big chance. Another Hollywood success story, but only because directors like Roberts make Hollywood movies without Hollywood budgets. But that’s just sour grapes on my part, right? I should wish Jordan well. May he date a starlet, buy a house in the Hollywood hills and make crappy movies until the day he dies.