"Around the Bend" is one of those intergenerational male weepies meant to send male viewers home for awkward long-distance phone calls to Dad. You'll laugh, you'll cry, your humbug meter may well fly into the red.
It's a road movie, too, not to mention an extremely peculiar 85-minute ad for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Clearly, first-time writer-director Jordan Roberts has a lot on his plate -- or in his bucket, as the case may be -- but he got lucky with his cast in a big way. The result is a curious hash: warmly funny in the comic scenes and shamelessly sentimental during the sad bits, of which there are many.
Sitting at the top of it all, like a scarecrow on the roof, is Christopher Walken. He plays Turner Lair, a prodigal son, father, and grandfather who has been AWOL for decades and who shows up unexpectedly at his family's door early in the film. His own father, "Papa" Henry (Michael Caine), is a puckish retired archeologist obsessed with planning his own death. Turner's grandson Zach (Jonah Bobo) is an adorable tyke who gets giggly over place names like Nepal (he pronounces it "nipple").
Walken, Caine, the kid -- an unstoppable strain of ham is evidently part of the Turner genetic code, but it has skipped over Turner's son Jason (Josh Lucas), a banker and soon-to-be divorced dad to Zach. Jason still limps from the childhood car accident that sent Turner running away, and he's still throttled with rage over the abandonment. If you can't guess that father and son will reconcile by the end credits, you have never seen a movie before.
The pleasure should be in getting there, anyway, and during its less calculated moments, "Around the Bend" delivers. "Some things are meant to be stolen," Papa Henry says at one point, and he's talking about movies: Despite unconvincing latex wrinkles and an on-and-off Cockney accent, Caine commandeers the film's opening scenes.
Then his character up and dies with absurd convenience at a local KFC, leaving behind a series of maps and clues that together make up an emotional scavenger hunt for his survivors. Off the remaining three go, leaving behind Henry's Danish nurse (Glenn Headley), whose main business is to talk funny and watch horror movies on TV.
Henry's instructions lead Turner, Jason, and Zach across the American Southwest to specific KFC restaurants, where they are then required to read clues taking them to scenes of past family importance and there scatter Henry's ashes to the wind. In general, KFC's participation here appears to go way past product placement and into outright corporate sponsorship. Aspiring filmmakers may want to take note.
Secrets eventually come out, anger is vented, there are funny moments involving a rescued dog and a second funerary urn, and a lot of Leon Russell music on the soundtrack. Walken dances a jig to the early Fleetwood Mac song "Hi Ho Silver," too, and you just know the movie will reprise that scene before long, after one final ruthless plot twist.
Lucas has to do the emotional heavy lifting in "Around the Bend," and his character is thanklessly bland as a result. Walken, for his part, gets handed the scenery-chewing baton after Caine retires, and he builds a convincing, off-kilter portrait of a living ghost revisiting scenes from his past. What few shards of unscripted feeling the film has come from him.
Cute kids, funny old folks, fuzzy mutts, '60s songs on the soundtrack, parental death -- with a film like "Around the Bend," you either come home with happy tears in your eyes or you feel like you've been mugged. Jordan Roberts will probably prosper in Hollywood: He already has the commercial knack for referencing human pain and emotion without actually getting his hands dirty.
Of course, audiences need and deserve tales of family reconciliation, but that doesn't make this one any less bogus at its softly fluttering heart.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Around the Bend
Written and directed by: Jordan Roberts
Starring: Josh Lucas, Christopher Walken, Michael Caine
At: Kendall Square, West Newton
Running time: 85 minutes
Rated: R (language, brief clips of grisly