Old Joy

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/07/08 11:50:00

"Quiet fireworks."
5 stars (Awesome)

There are two main characters in "Old Joy" -- Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham) -- but it's no slight to the actors to say that we can probably learn the most from the dog.

The dog, named Lucy, tags along with her master Mark after he agrees to a camping trip with his old buddy Kurt. The thirtysomething men talk, get lost, drive around, camp for the night, find a hot spring in Oregon, talk some more, and so on. While the men do a quiet dance of unease around each other, encased in the bubbles of their own problems, Lucy just wants to run around with a stick or a branch in her jaws. It would be a mistake not to consider Lucy a third character; indeed, she may be the movie's key character. Lucy is the only one onscreen who seems fully alive, who embodies the uncomplicated existence — I'm happy, I'm hungry, I want a stick — that the men appear to yearn for in their own lives.

But Old Joy is not a dog movie. Directed by Kelly Reichardt, who wrote the script with Jonathan Raymond based on his story, the film sits with these two men as they grapple with what their lives could've been versus what their lives actually are. Mark, who has a pregnant wife at home, envies Kurt's nomadic life of drifting from one "transformative" event to another. Kurt seems to wish for Mark's stable home life, someone to come home to and talk to, a routine, some certainty from day to day. We get the sense that Mark and Kurt used to be more alike back in the day, in their early twenties, when the landscape and their own possibilities sprawled out before them. Mark has grown, though not altogether contentedly, while Kurt, parodoxically, has fallen into a rut. Kurt may be "free," with nothing tying him down or getting in the way of a jaunt to Big Sur, but he, too, is discontented, feeling stagnant and probably too old for the lifestyle of a 22-year-old.

None of this is really said in so many words. There are no big revelatory moments. There's no clichéd conflict. But don't make the mistake of then assuming that Old Joy has no drama, or that "nothing happens." Reichardt is a miniaturist, fixated on small details (the sound design, especially when heard through headphones, is remarkable) and subtle signifiers. The movie reminded me of the work of Harvey Pekar, whose American Splendor comic book finds importance in the mundane. I also flashed back to My Dinner with André, the great two-character epic of words, which seemed to encompass everything and resolve nothing. We could read Mark and Kurt as an updated, post-grunge Wallace Shawn and André Gregory, though Mark and Kurt have their own inner lives and inner demons. They are probably closer to us and to people we've known than Wally and André, intellectuals of the New York theater, were.

The movie runs only 76 minutes, and there's so little dialogue the entire script could probably be printed on the insert inside the DVD case. Reichardt draws out the silences, keeps her camera glued to the Oregon trees and mountains passing us by out the passenger-side window. The impatient will call this padding, but this is a movie truly about the journey. It's about spending a couple of days with a buddy you're not sure you have anything to say to anymore, and it's about wondering why things have worked out that way. And in the margins, always, is happy little Lucy, trotting along, looking for the next stick.

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