If Jake Johnson smoking weed and playing with his dog in the woods sounds like your idea of a good time, boy have I got a surprise for you! Ride the Eagle, which Johnson also co-wrote and co-produced with director Trent O’Connell, is a note-perfect dramedy that, for me, doubles as perfect catharsis. Having lost my own mother recently to cancer, I found the script rich with realism and potent emotionality. It hit me hardest during a masterful concluding chapter, that is powerful even in its inherent simplicity.
Leif (Johnson) lives a perfectly happy existence with his cute snoring dog, Nora, in a very tiny shack. A visitor arrives from the spiritual community he was part of as a child with an upsetting message: his estranged mother, Honey (Susan Sarandon), has passed away after a brief battle with cancer, of which he was not aware. As a final peace offering, Honey leaves Leif a huge multi-story cabin, complete with her mustachioed paintings inside and an obscene amount of weed. However, there is one big catch.
Leif’s inheritance is conditional; he must meet a certain criteria in order to reap his rewards. If he fails to complete Honey’s elaborate to-do list, the cabin will be sold to a wildflower reservation, and Leif loses it forever. Each of Honey’s tasks is purposeful, and actually, reiterates personal growth for the floundering Leif. He is in a band called Restaurant, where he performs as a percussionist; has a faulty living situation with the strange Gorka (Luis Fernandez-Gil), who refers to Honey as “your shitty asshole mother;” and Leif is still hung up over his first love, Audrey (D’Arcy Carden). Honey forces him to confront his issues head-on, instead of retreating into his shell like a turtle.
Above all else, Leif is conflicted over his relationship with Honey. The two were basically in a cult, and he has never forgiven her for abandoning him, though Honey has tried to get back into his life. Throughout the course of the movie, Jake Johnson plays Leif as conflicted and lost, yet willing to embrace change. He legitimately wants to follow Honey’s instructions to a T, including a self-recorded VHS tape that allows Susan Sarandon to make quite an impression. Use of her narration sparingly gives an extra layer of care, and hammers home some of the film’s bigger themes and ideas.
Ride the Eagle works so well for me in its approach to death and acceptance, quiet and hopeful in its stance. With a slim cast and an intimate setting, the dramedy allows ample time to fall in love with Leif, warts and all, thanks to Johnson’s excellent performance. I was surprised to see J.K. Simmons showing up in a small role, and every line of dialogue he has as Honey’s ex, Carl, is hilarious. I was most impressed with the final act. It brings everything full circle, closing out in a satisfying and poignant way. Cherish the moments you have with the ones you love most, as you never know which could be your last. It is never too late to make your peace, and connect with your loved ones.
Ride the Eagle soars in theaters, On Demand, and Digital on Friday, July 30th, from DECAL.