Old Joy


Action / Drama


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Movie Reviews

Reviewed by Chris Knipp 7 / 10

Meticulous but slight American indie garners excessive praise

In Kelly Reichart's Old Joy, two thirty-something males who live in the Pacific Northwest reunite for a day-and-a-half trip by car and on foot to a hot spring in Oregon's Cascade Mountains and discover some hours of peace and mutual solitude. It seems that the years have separated them. Once great friends, they haven't been in touch for a while. They aren't the same guys they were and perhaps haven't much in common any more. The stocky, balding, bearded, single Kurt (Will Oldham) is a semi-hippie living marginally who smokes a lot of grass. Mark (Daniel London) is thin and married and both he and his pregnant wife work hard at their jobs. But Reichart is too unemphatic, and her understated dialogue is too naturalistic, for this implied discovery of lost friendship to have any drama, or for the differences between the two men to have any clear point. This is good film-making, but it seems almost at cross purposes with itself.

The colors are rich, the camera is precise, the sounds are finely recorded. The trip is meticulously observed. Reichart sees her little piece of ivory through a magnifying glass. The way Mark and Kurt talk seems authentic and true. They don't present back-stories, because it wouldn't be natural for them to do so -- though Kurt acknowledges Mark's daring in having a child; he says he's never done anything so "real." Mark's wife, glimpsed before the trip and overheard in cell phone conversations, seems neurotic, insecure about this dip back into Mark's pre-marital world. She may understandably feel jealous of the way, when Kurt calls and suggests the trip, Mark comes hopping.

They take Mark's better car, an old Volvo station wagon, and Kurt's directions lead them astray so at night they have to camp by what looks a bit like a dump, not really knowing exactly where they are. There's nothing to give away here. The two guys make the trip. They make it with Lucy, Mark's dog, up to the hot spring the next afternoon. And the rustic shelter set up there for bathing is as Kurt had promised, simple and lovely. Kurt has said there's not much difference between city and country now but this peaceful place belies that notion, except that when they return, their parting is quick, and Kurt is soon out and about by himself in a sleazy part of town and Mark is heading home with an Air America political talk show tuned in again just as it was when he headed out to get Kurt.

The irony is that all this meticulous observation reveals very little. When it's over, we don't know much about who these two men are. We don't know how they knew each other when younger or for how long; We don't know what Mark's job is. And it is not clear that they find each other boring, because they haven't said a lot to each other. Mark has talked a little about his father, and Kurt has told a long story at the hot spring about shopping for a notebook and a dream he just had that provides the title. In his dream a woman told Kurt that "sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy." Is the joy of Mark and Kurt's old friendship worn out and turned to sorrow? NYTimes critic Manohla Dargis, who wrote this week that this is "one of the finest American films of the year," says that at their parting, "from the way Kurt looks at Mark, it seems clear he knows there won't be another reunion." Seems, perhaps; but it isn't really clear. And this is the weakness of Reichart's understated method: it's so subtle, and in its construction so minimal, it risks not really saying anything. Nature and the urban world speak clearly in Reichart's film, but there's a substratum of feeling and experience that finds no voice.

Shown at various film festivals, including San Francisco, and released in Portland, Oregon in August and New York City (Film Forum) in September 2006.

Reviewed by first-2 10 / 10

Relax, It's Only a Movie

A quiet, yet powerful meditation on waning friendships and the loss of happiness that comes as we age. The film follows two old friends, Mark and Kurt, who, after drifting apart, reunite to go on a camping trip.

Not much happens, but through the dialog and wonderful acting, the state of the two friends lives are called into a troubling contrast. Kurt has remained a free-spirit while Mark has sacrificed his freedom for a kind of domestic prison. Throughout the trip Mark has to take joyless calls from his pregnant wife, always walking away from Kurt, as if embarrassed. Mark is unsettled by Kurt's behavior: Kurt is dismayed by the loss of some unnameable thing between them, and is openly emotional and affectionate with Mark. Kurt cannot see Mark's loss of freedom and joy, but he can feel its damage to their friendship.

During the most critical scene of the movie, Kurt recounts a dream where he is told "Sorrow is just worn out joy" -- The line falls heavily on Mark and we can see the deep desperation etched on his face. After, Kurt, unaware that he has called the trouble of Mark's life out to him, gives Mark a massage. Mark is unnerved by the show of affection which is not homosexual but simply uninhibited friendliness. At first he resists it, but then after a time gives in and finally relaxes -- only for that one special moment he is free.

Reviewed by ([email protected]) 9 / 10

Intimate, elegiac film about the end of a friendship

A deceptively simple, in fact richly nuanced, subtle film about two old college chums, now in their 30s, who go on a weekend camping trip and discover that their lives have diverged to the point where the bonds that remain between them have become too thin, too attenuated, to sustain their friendship further.

Kurt (Will Oldham) is still the same unsettled, shambling fellow that he always was, forever searching for a formula to bring him peace of mind, unemployed, living in his van, passing through town before going on to the next place. Early on, Kurt tells his old buddy Mark (Daniel London) that recently he's found the right path to happiness, but Mark knows (and we know) that it's not true. Kurt bums money from Mark to score some pot on their way out of town (Kurt proceeds to smoke it all himself).

Mark has put down roots. He's married, about to become a father, and has a steady job. But he's no yuppie: he lives modestly, still meditates, does volunteer youth work, and drives an old Volvo station wagon, his ear glued to Air America talk shows when he's driving alone. Kurt points to their differences when he tells Mark, "I never get myself into something I can't easily get out of." Awareness that this trip will seal an end to the men's friendship comes to them - and to us - gradually, obliquely, almost tacitly. It begins when Kurt can't recall the signposts to reach their intended destination in the lower Cascades (the entire film was shot in Portland and its rural surrounds), reflecting the disorder in his life. So after driving here and there, they end up pitching their tent at a bleak, litter strewn spot just off the highway.

A bit later, around a campfire, there is little spontaneity in the friends' conversation. Kurt speaks of a wonderful gathering he recently attended, full of music, dancing and fun. He talks vaguely about his personal theory of the universe as a falling teardrop. "I don't have the numbers but I just know I'm right about this," Kurt says. Mark's only response to these overtures is a glazed eyed glance. Kurt tries to be more direct, saying that he feels an uncomfortable gulf between them, but Mark brushes this aside. Rather than becoming a beer fueled, cozy, guy reunion, lasting into the wee hours, the evening ends early, abruptly and in silence.

Next day, during an interlude at Bagby Hot Springs, when Kurt again attempts to bridge the gulf by massaging Mark's shoulders, this gesture seems only to make Mark tense. In fact he is preoccupied throughout the trip, guilty for leaving his pregnant wife at home alone, talking with her frequently on his cell. On the drive back into the city, the old friends speak hardly a word, and, at the end, they exchange only the most cursory of goodbyes.

We all know that friendships from our youth sometimes stay alive and sometimes die. That people's values, aims and lifestyles can change. Or not. Nearly a generation ago, films like "Return of the Secaucus 7" and "The Big Chill" took long looks at these themes. There are, however, so many characters in each of those large ensemble films that only superficial snapshots of most are possible. After college, the majority in both films had gone on to exceptional careers. In contrast, Mark and Kurt are - in their differing ways - plain, ordinary, Everymen. And with its singular focus on just two people, "Old Joy" is able to offer us a deeply intimate - one might even say delicate, yet entirely natural and unforced - account about old friends whose paths have separated.

One can readily see that Mark has matured while Kurt remains stuck in late adolescence. Viewed through another prism, we could as easily surmise that Kurt has endeavored to stick to his youthful ideals, a would be free spirit still seeking out the good times and refusing to be yoked to greater responsibilities in a world grown harsher than it used to be. Yet we sense Kurt's underlying unhappiness. His vagabond quest has led to no discoveries of lasting significance.

Mark has crossed over a line that separates him inexorably from Kurt, a line that demarcates acceptance, compromise, the "adult" adjustments one makes to become self supporting, to love and to be generative. Both men have lost something precious they once had shared, a common vision of life and the world perhaps. And they have lost one another. Fittingly, at one point Kurt shares with Mark a Chinese proverb: "Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy." Even more fittingly, it is the quietude, the silences, that give this wonderfully realized film its lyrical, elegiac quality. My grades: 8.5/10 (A-)(Seen on 09/16/06)

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