There’s a new demographic in town (well, outta town, actually): the middle-aged backpacker.
The boomer backpacker phenomenon seems to have erupted out of nowhere, almost overnight. When my partner and I travelled through Lombok in our forties – 15 years ago now – we came across few other backpackers of our vintage. Very few. Not too many about in Malaysia only 5 years ago, either. But when we went to Vietnam last year, there were greys lumping backpacks everywhere! A few weeks ago we encountered more of the same in Thailand.
Hollywood tapped into the demographic with Eat Pray Love (and, it might be argued, added to its momentum – Julia Roberts has a lot to answer for, going by reports on the escalation in gentrification of Ubud since the release of the movie).
The cynics in our midst – and lawd forbid that I be tarred with that bitter brush – might suggest that this latest old fart backpacker movie, The Way, is driven primarily by a boomer-targeted marketing strategy. Eat Pray Love was a big winner at the box office. You can bet Hollywood will be hopping on the boomer-in-mid-life-crisis-does-a-geographical bandwagon until the wheels fall off.
Thing is, The Way is a heart-felt effort from director/screenwriter Emilio Estevez, too earnest to be dismissed as mere bandwagon hopping. Alas, good intentions are not enough to save the movie.
The set-up has promise. Thomas Avery (Martin Sheen) and his 30-something son Daniel (Emilio Estevez) have a bristly relationship arising from their sharply contrasting attitudes to life. The father prioritises career and comfort, the son adventure and challenging himself. Thomas’s stable suburban world is rocked when he receives a phone call from a French gendarme informing him that Daniel has been killed while hiking in the Pyrenees. He flies to France to bring home his son’s ashes, and makes an impulsive decision to complete the trek his son was attempting when killed.
The first sign of trouble ahead, filmically speaking, comes when Thomas meets the gendarme who broke the news of Daniel’s death. The gendarme states vaguely that Daniel perished during a storm while walking the Camino de Santiago, a Catholic pilgrimage route to Galicia, Spain, also known as the Way of St. James (‘The Way’). Incredibly, Thomas seeks no further details on his son’s death, yet listens attentively as the gendarme launches into a detailed rundown on The Way and its history that sounds like an excerpt from a travel guide book. This is the clumsiest and most amateurish instance of exposition I have come across in a movie in years.
It becomes apparent soon after Thomas hauls on his backpack and sets off on his trek that The Way is veritably packed with ‘pilgrims’. Narrative logic pedants like me can’t help but to wonder how poor Daniel managed to die out there as a result of exposure to severe weather with so much human traffic around, and dorms and other accommodation regularly spaced along the trail. Just damned unlucky, it seems (especially since the weather is benign for the rest of the movie!).
By and by, Thomas links up – reluctantly at first – with three other trekkers on personal quests: “Joost from Amsterdam” (as he routinely introduces himself), a chain-smoking Canadian biatch named Sarah, and Jack, an Irish poet with writer’s block.
Joost (Yorick van Wageningen) is the most successful of these characters. His simple aim in walking The Way is to lose weight. He wants to slim down for his brother’s coming wedding, but his primary motivation is that his wife won’t sleep with him unless he loses the flab (maybe he’d be better off losing the wife). He’s an endearing character, full of bon homie, and slightly Falstaffian in his irreverence and excesses. He flings himself on every tasty regional speciality that presents itself, and whips out a joint and offers it round at the slightest opportunity. Well, he’s Dutch, innee! National stereotyping, blatantly, but sorta forgivable if you can bring yourself to be charitable about it…and you can in Joost’s case.
Not so, Jack the Irishman (James Nesbitt – who else?). I have to admit to being heartily sick of this bloke, an Irish everyman whose acting range seems to me very limited. His opening scene here is an embarrassingly overacted and intensely irritating soliloquy that goes on interminably and establishes his character as – guess what – an eccentric, hard-drinkin’ Irish bohemian with a gripe against the Catholic church. Is there any cliché left out of that mix?
Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) starts off with a bang, identifying her target, Thomas, as “Boomer” and sledging him and his generation off with an unprovoked volley of putdowns and accusations (self-centred, indulgent, quasi-spiritual, youth-coveting, young-chick-seeking blah blah). She’s no spring chicken herself, which rather diminishes the force of her generation-based attack. While her unoriginal critique of the Boomers is not without substance, it seems odd here, tacked on. It’s as if the screenwriter, not the character, has a generational score to settle and is proud of the rave, which he’s bloody well keeping in the script whether it fits or not.
An Amazonian Joni Mitchell with big thrusting tits and spray-on jeans, Sarah’s appearance is slightly distracting, and at odds with her manner and personal history. She’s supposed to be a victim of spousal abuse, but lookin’ at this gal you can imagine her decking any guy who laid a hand on her. Indeed, in a later scene that lacks any credibility, she reflexively socks poor old Thomas in the jaw. This aside, she’s an insubstantial character who runs out of puff after her strong introduction.
The clichés don’t stop with the characters. There is drinking and revelry at night – obligatory and fun on the road, but not so gripping filmed. Eccentric characters along the way, natch (those crazy colourful Continentals!), including one that is cartoonish in his silliness – an innkeeper who conducts a party with himself, switching chairs to take on different roles. OK in Monty Python, way outta place here.
There are panoramic shots of the four backpackers trudging along in single file profiled against the sky – quite a few of them. Wide shots of the four against sweeping rural backdrops. Etc. While the landscape is cinematically irresistible and its inclusion integral to the travel theme of the movie, there is not enough of substance going on in the human world. Too much travelogue, not enough narrative or character development.
The most dramatic scene of the movie is not a fictional construct but an excerpt from the real-life theatre of the Catholic church (now there’s an institution that knows how to work an audience). In the cathedral in Galicia that marks the end of The Way, a battery of clergy hoists a massive and lethally heavy thurible high into the vaults via a series of ropes and pulleys; it swings in massive arcs, swooping over the heads of the pilgrims, plumes of incense describing its dangerous trajectory. Jaw-dropping stuff, and wonderfully filmed.
The ending was always headed for anti-climax, since the characters are not well fleshed out and we don’t care enough about any of them, and coming after the cathedral scene a miserable fizzling out is assured. A last ditch attempt is made to save the characters’ inevitable respective transformations from cliché by denying each the objective they set out in quest of, but this uniform perverseness is too neat and obvious a strategy, and all too late.
Redeeming features? The cinematography is fine throughout. And Martin Sheen is as good as ever, giving his all to his lead role. But the woodpile is built hollow. Far more thought needed to be invested in the script, and perhaps more talent. I’m not sure Estevez has the goods as a writer to do the job solo. I’d be surprised if this turkey lasts long on the big screens before going to Blu-ray and video.
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