Toward the end of Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens’s Land Ho!, Colin (Paul Eenhorn), an Australian bank worker, breaks into imitations of scenes from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Twins while enjoying a wade in the hot springs in Landmannalaugar, Iceland. In essence, Land Ho! is of a kind with those films in the buddy-comedy subgenre, following Colin and Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson), his affluent, loudmouth ex-brother-in-law, on a spontaneous vacation. And yet Katz and Stephens transcend that mode fully by catching two elderly men in a state of vibrant emotional and existential bloom, despite the grim forecast afforded by their late age and behavior.
From the start, Mitch, a former surgeon, doesn’t seem to mind his age that much at all, as he openly flirts with any woman who comes within orbit of him and freely spends his considerable wealth. Colin, broke and lonely, is more introspective, perceptive, and weary of the inevitable. The pairing is classical to the point of archetype, but by casting Nelson, a gregarious non-professional, against Eenhorn, a career actor, the filmmakers make their film as much a study of on-screen behavior as it is of divergent life attitudes.
As such, Land Ho! is at once akin to and acts as an insightful corrective to such 60-is-the-new-12 comedies as Last Vegas. There’s plenty of talk of lost loves and getting old, but the seemingly improvisatory dialogue sharply evokes Colin and Mitch’s ceaseless curiosities, distinct tastes, and time-tested wisdom, and it summons a clear sense of each man’s appetite for life. While strolling through Reykjavik, Mitch ponders if he and his companion even exist, and there’s a gleefully vulgar tour of an art gallery, where Mitch only notices the sexual innuendo of each piece they pass by. And though Mitch is seen as bigger than life, the film doesn’t shy away from the uglier and more discomfiting elements of his character, as witnessed when he tells one of his younger, female relatives how “hot” her ass is and, later, corners a honeymooning couple and presses them about the amount of time they’ve been spending under the sheets.
Colin is never quite as egregiously clueless and aggressive, but his thoughtful, warm nature doesn’t speak to his business acumen. Mitch’s life as a surgeon has yielded an extravagant, comfortable retirement, whereas Colin is still licking his wounds after blowing his savings on his ex’s small business. Though they’re decades away from grappling with the sort of twilight-years ruminations of regret, legacy, and death that their characters are swimming in, the filmmakers are in the midst of making the sort of professional decisions that may very well dictate whether they fall into Mitch or Colin’s camp. Indeed, the film’s central dynamic contrasts a life defined by a skilled, steady profession against following one’s nose at the risk of fiscal damnation.
That Katz and Stephens consistently catch the nuances of character that bind the two men to each other, rather than simply tracing the pros and cons of their dispositions, is what gives the film its melancholic yet vibrant resonance. There’s a quick line where Mitch mentions that he’s a great karaoke singer, in spite of the fact that he doesn’t know the words to the songs, and there’s a sense that this encapsulates his life motto, as well as the filmmakers’ artistic motto. Land Ho! calls on a familiar comedic structure, but never rigidly adheres to it, allowing the director-writers to find their own aesthetic and narrative pleasures to explore. The characters are never seen as bigger than the landscape in the frame, and the filmmakers are as much stirring a sense of adventure and everyday action in their shots as Mitch and Colin are in their antic squabbling and discussions. When Mitch decides to get existential with Colin, the camera drifts away to look at the local Reykjavik vistas, underlining travel’s ability to provide escape from the drudgery of common existence and to reacquaint one with the philosophical fascinations that make the drudgery worth all the effort.