Road Trip 101, Designed By Committee. That should have been the alternate title for The Open Road, a film so average it should come pre-packaged with a letter of apology for not trying harder. It’s not a terrible film – it’s competently made, functionally scripted and quite well acted. It’s just that the trip taken by Carlton Garrett (Justin Timberlake) to collect his father Kyle (Jeff Bridges) to visit his dying mother Katherine (Mary Steenburgen) is so clichéd that déjà vu is likely the only feeling you’ll experience while watching it. Emotions come and go, but they feel like items on a checklist being ticked off. It’s not like I can complain that the characters are underwritten – there are lots of relationships at the centre of The Open Road. But I wasn’t able to care about any of them as I tried desperately to shrug off the feeling of familiarity.

Writer/director Michael Meredith previously made Three Days Of Rain (2002), a drama about loneliness and isolation, and the passing days of peoples lives. The film told six Chekov stories over a three day rainstorm in Cleveland and it was, while not perfect, much more ambitious than this picture. The Open Road is a film I expect to see mid-afternoon on Channel 5, and one day I probably will. For now it skips a cinema release and lands direct to DVD which is probably where it’ll work best – given the chance of an ad break you might just skip the film altogether. It’s not especially cinematic, either. DoP Yaron Orbach, who has done terrific work in the past, brings a basic palette to the film, which looks perfectly fine but never anything more. There’s the opportunity for some great imagery – a hot summer night at a baseball stadium and long stretches of lush countryside – but he coasts, and the aesthetic is bland. Having said that, the film is shot in Summer and the sun gives the images a softness; grass seems a little greener, the sky bluer. The cinematographer manipulates this, sure, but it’s the weather that grants The Open Road a light, breezy tone. Meredith’s direction also feels by-the-book. There’s nothing wrong with the way he observes his characters, but nothing particularly interesting about it either. He doesn’t emotionally engage with his camera, using it as a tool of observation rather than reflection. Simple shot-reverse-shots make up most conversations, and he seems completely uninterested in expressing feeling through direction. Cameron Crowe shoots thorough a sentimental lens. Ingmar Bergman shot through a bleak one. Meredith’s is completely ineffectual – it just sits there and lets stuff happen in front of it.

Justin Timberlake, who was great in The Social Network (Fincher, 2010), struggles to find the balance between charisma and pathos that is required for the role of Garrett, frequently sounding whiny rather than pensively troubled. Kate Mara fares a little better in an under-written role, but the film may have been stronger without her. One thing the film does successfully is paint a connected family unit, including a grandfather played by Harry Dean Stanton (always a delight), but as Garret’s ex-lover and best friend Mara seems a loose plot strand. So it’s left up to Jeff Bridges to get his acting hat on and deliver a solid performance as Kyle, a wandering ex-star who now seems to be coasting on the wealth afforded him by a life on the field rather than at home. He wasn’t a bad father, it seems. Just an unfocused one, who feared commitment and responsibility. “I don’t owe you anything” he shouts at one point, and to him that’s the truth. It’s one of Bridge’s more scenery chewing performances, all grand gestures and well-chewed dialogue, but he invests the character with a hidden sadness; the realization that his life could have been more than the place he’s in now. He’s really terrific, and the film probably warrants a viewing just for his performance.

I’m writing this review on Wednesday, and I viewed the film on Tuesday. I can hardly remember a single scene, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I may have seen it all before, but watching The Open Road was an enjoyable experience for the most part. It has moments of insight, and moments of warmth – the problem is simply that they’re too sporadic, and don’t mark themselves out as individual. It zips along at just over 80 minutes, and I laughed a couple of times. Bridges keeps afloat a sinking ship that I’ll recommend for his performance, but otherwise would say to skip. If you’ve seen any kind of road trip movie, The Open Road will feel like a route well-travelled…

The Open Road is out on DVD 25th April 2011.

Director: Michael Meredith
Stars: Justin Timberlake, Ted Danson, Harry Dean Stanton, Jeff Bridges, Kate Mara
Runtime: 90 min
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★½☆☆

DVD Rating: ★★★½☆

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