Synopsis: When Leif’s estranged mother dies, she leaves him a ‘conditional inheritance’. He has to complete her elaborate to-do list before he gets her cabin in Yosemite. Leif steps into a wild world as the mother he never really knew tries to make amends from beyond the grave.
Stars: Jake Johnson, Susan Sarandon, D’Arcy Carden, J.K. Simmons, Luis Fernandez-Gil, Cleo King, Eric Edelstein, Billy Bungeroth
Director: Trent O’Donnell
Running Length: 88 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Is it OK for me to start out by saying that the whole concept of Ride the Eagle didn’t thrill me at first? I mean, the entirety of the “Mom’s dead, but she left a video for you to watch and a list of things for you to do.” feels not just like something we’ve seen before but also a complete set-up to eventually wring the tears out of you in a most manipulative way. Then celebrated television director Trent O’Donnell goes and casts Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon (Blackbird) as the mom seen only on a VHS tape…and even the casual viewer knows Sarandon has carved out a small niche playing dead or nearly deceased mothers ready to impart one final message to their loved ones left behind. All this to say that I went into Ride the Eagle buckled in and ready to have my emotions toyed with.
How refreshing to find that the emotions that star and co-screenwriter (with O’Donnell) Jake Johnson played around with weren’t solely surrounding the sadness of loss but of something much more intriguing. The road far more traveled was bypassed for a journey through a path less shaped by convention and that’s where the enjoyment (pure and mighty enjoyment) in this entertaining bit of whimsy comes on the strongest and lingers the longest. That it was filmed in the middle of the pandemic with barely any of the eight-member cast in the same room is an accomplishment, especially when you consider the believable dynamics that are formed between the actors in 80-some minutes of screen time.
When he receives news his estranged mother Honey (Sarandon) has passed away after a brief illness, bohemian bongo player Leif (Johnson, Jurassic World) isn’t sure how to process the news at first. Though she left him when he was 12 and he’s now past 40, their issues remained unresolved at the time of her death. Living in a tiny house with his dog behind the mansion of his manager, the sometime musician (he’s the oldest member of a band called, hysterically, Restaurant), he doesn’t have much to worry about in terms of actual responsibility. Then, after a visit from family friend Missy (Cleo King, Transformers: Age of Extinction), he learns that his mother left him her impressive cabin in the gorgeous woods of Yosemite. There’s a catch, though, and it comes in the form of a condition attached to the cabin.
In order to become the owner of the cabin, Leif will have to complete a set of tasks designed by his mother as a final way of saying good-bye to the son she never got to know. In doing so, he learns about the mother he passed on the opportunity to forgive in later years when she attempted to reach out. So begins an eye-opening weekend for Leif and Nora (the dog) when they arrive at the cabin to find Honey has more than a few surprises up her sleeve for her son. Just wait until you see what she’s hiding in all her cabinets, or what waits on the other side of the lake she has him kayak toward, or how he winds up talking to an ex (D’Arcy Carden, Bombshell, absolute perfection) and finds that maybe the one that got away thankfully didn’t go that far.
If the film occasionally goes a bit too far in its sourness (the improvisatory talents of all involved tends to have the actors resort to dropping a f#$k or some variation because it sounds conversational…it doesn’t) it gets in a few good zingers here and there that actually feel earned. For example, only a talent like J.K. Simmons (The Tomorrow War) could deliver a line written by Johnson/O’Donnell that is so incredibly filthy in the middle of a beautiful bit of eulogizing. Even an attempted bit of phone naughtiness between Carden and Johnson goes off the rails with riotous glee. These are the rare bits of perfectly crafted dialogue in film we hardly get nowadays and Ride the Eagle has quite a few of them.
Unpredictable is hard to come by in film but Ride the Eagle manages to stay ahead of viewers for nearly the entirety of its short run time. You’re so invested in the characters and, in particular, Johnson’s incredibly charismatic star turn in the type of role that would normally be poison in gaining affection from an audience much less sympathy, that you won’t be thinking about the end. If anything, you’ll be dreading it will soon be over.