Land Ho! is Old Joy if that title were taken literally. The film follows two aging friends, once married to sisters, as they travel to Iceland. Why Iceland? Why not? Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz’s shaggy-dog indie is an exercise in uninflected absurdism. Not much happens, apart from observing two very different men on a journey of self reckoning. Although this talk-heavy film is scripted, one gets the sense that the actors draw heavily on their own personalities for the odd-couple dynamic. The reserved, Australian Colin (This Is Martin Bonner’s Paul Eenhoorn) is a failed shoe-business owner who long ago gave up playing French horn. Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) is a proudly vulgar Kentucky doctor so uninhibited he’ll ask a pair of newlyweds, “How many times you hit the mat in the last four days?”
Mitch, seemingly never far from a pot hookup, sets the itinerary. The men go out on the town when—in the movie’s biggest contrivance—one of Mitch’s cousins, Ellen (Karrie Crouse), and her fellow Ph.D candidate friend, Janet (Elizabeth McKee), swing through Reykjavík. Colin seems quietly mortified when the boisterous Mitch creepily instructs the much younger women on how to dress provocatively, though (surprise) it turns out that Mitch’s bluster obscures a soft, goodhearted interior. (Nelson is Stephens’ cousin in real life.) Nothing untoward happens, and the film moves on. The duo drives their rented Hummer across a flooded dirt road and through mountains. They hike by night using glow sticks as illumination. They learn to face facts about retirement and their (in some cases ex-) families.
Although Land Ho! might seem like the work of two auteurs—Stephens’ Pilgrim Song competed at South By Southwest in 2012, while Katz will forever be remembered as one of originators of mumblecore—the writer-directors take a back seat to their stars, whose reactions to paintings and natural formations form the crux of the show. (The Icelandic scenery does much of the heavy lifting.) The humor, relying on such running gags as Mitch’s cluelessness about movies, is much broader than what could be found in Katz’s deadpan detective story Cold Weather, although there are other compensations, including the otherworldly Nordic light, Keegan DeWitt’s I-love-the-’80s score, and a weirdly cathartic use of “In A Big Country.” While it’s heartening in one sense to see this youthful, offbeat take on two men’s determination to stay eternally fresh, there’s something about the ease with which the characters reorder their lives that makes Land Ho! seem both a little slight and a little precious.