Best friends should sometimes stay in the past.
Mark (Daniel London) is soon to be a father and quite frankly, he’s not ready for it. While his wife isn’t quite all that controlling of his current life, there’s still that feeling he gets in the pit of his stomach where he knows that all of the freedom of having hardly any responsibilities and pressures in the world, will soon be going away. So when his old friend Kurt (Will Oldham) proposes a camping trip in the Oregon wilderness, he’s more than up to it. Sure, they may have not seen each other for quite some time, but Mark needs some peace, quiet and relaxation from his current life and also wants to catch up with his old buddy in the meantime, so why the hell not? The trip does eventually happen, and while they’re on it, they find out more about one another, their lives since the last time they saw one another, and just how much they’ve changed, not just as adults, but as human beings. Also along for the ride is Mark’s dog Lucy (Lucy), who probably has the greatest time of her life just running around, picking up sticks, and wondering just what her human companions are doing.
It should probably go without saying that Lucy, the dog in the movie, is probably the most important character of the bunch. Sure, while she may not have any dialogue to spare, or be an absolutely integral part to the script and how the story plays out, she makes up exactly what the point of Old Joy is. When Mark and Kurt are walking around one another, trying to find the best words to say, or figure out what’s the next best topic to address, there’s Lucy, running around, picking up tree branches, wagging her tail, and seeming like she’s having the time of her life. In other words, while these two are figuring out what it is that they want to do with their lives, Lucy’s just there, enjoying herself and not seeming to give a single hoot about the rest of life’s problems.
The only reason I bring Lucy up is because she is, essentially, the one character worth paying attention to. She’s always there, whether in the background or clearly seen, and she may not have anything to do say, but in doing so, she drives home the point that these two men, despite having been great friends at one point in their lives, are nowhere near that to this day. Maybe when they were 20-somethings who had all sorts of aspirations and hopes for the world that they lived in, they had the time of their lives, but nowadays, they’re getting old, missing out on opportunities that were once available to them way back when, and for the most part, wishing that they could “just go back”.
And, like I said, there’s Lucy – always hanging around and enjoying herself.
But I digress. Daniel London and Will Oldham are both pretty solid here, and that means a lot. Because Old Joy is, essentially, a two-hander (if you don’t include Lucy), the movie does seem to rely on their talents and skills as actors to get across who these characters are and where they are at in their lives, without ever having to actually speak it, or make some sort of exclamation about it. In other words, they both have to play it really, really subtle, and considering that the script could have probably been fit on one page, it means a lot when just a twinkle in their eyes, or a turn of their facial-expressions, is more able to have us see a character in a different light, than having them actually say what we’re supposed to be thinking about them.
And this small, minimalist approach to ordinary stories such as this, is why writer/director Kelly Reichardt is such an extraordinary talent. Nobody tells stories quite like these ones nowadays and even if they, there’s not nearly as much attention to detail. There’s so many lovely, sweeping shots of the nature surrounding these guys, as well as a sweet, but peaceful score from Yo La Tengo to make it feel as if you’re right on this trip with these guys, and not knowing whether you’re enjoying it, or not. Regardless of whether you should, Reichardt seems more interested in the woods, and grass, and trees around these guys, that are supposed to make them feel completely and utterly at home, but instead, proves even further why they’re not as good of friends any longer.
In a way, Old Joy is a very sad story that doesn’t hold back the fact that these two men have seen life gone by them and now, they’re trying to make amends for it. But what Reichardt smartly shows is that maybe, just maybe, it’s already too late. The conversation’s already too dry, the personalities have already changed, and life’s been lived for far too long, to the point of where they lost a thing to talk about, or be interested by, in one another’s life. While Mark and Kurt may, interestingly enough, want the other’s lifestyle, they never ever come right out and say it, nor does it make them hate the other; they’re just sad and disappointed that this is where life has taken them and there’s almost no turning back.
You know, the happy stuff one person comes to terms with in their mid-life crisis.
If there is one issue I have with Old Joy is that it does feel way too short. Sure, the 76 or so minutes that it’s up on-screen, is as meticulously planned and put together as you can get, but when all was said and done, there was a slight feeling that there was maybe a tad more to this story than we got. Not that there needed to be more said between these two characters, but maybe another conversation or two would have done some justice – not just to these characters, but to the movie as well.
Then again, this may just be me whining and complaining for no reason.
Consensus: With a keen eye and attention to the smaller details, Old Joy extends itself beyond being just another road-trip movie, and instead, taking on a different life as a more subtle, but still engaging look inside the lives of two guys who, quite frankly, may not be the best of friends anymore.
8 / 10