Much as movie images consist of a series of still photographs strung together quickly enough to imitate life and movement, most film stories cohere out of a series of related scenes that flow together into a semblance of life. Given just a sense of believable reality—or, at minimum, enough flash and forward momentum—audiences will mentally associate any group of events into a story, without needing to see the threads that link those scenes.
In his feature debut, Around The Bend, writer-director Jordan Roberts baffles this process via a series of scenes that are clearly related, but that feel more like a series of cogs dropping into an engine than like a series of human interactions. The film tells a story—a painfully contrived, linear one—but it never feels like a story. Instead, it comes across as a mechanical process or a mathematical formula: "Estrangement + reunion = pathos."
Josh Lucas stars as the nearly personality-free bridge connecting several generations of men whose only real defining feature is bland stubbornness. Lucas was raised by his grandfather (Michael Caine) and is raising his own young son (Jonah Bobo) in turn; the three of them live together in a house characterized by clutter and terse, lean, character-establishing exchanges. Eventually, Christopher Walken turns up as Lucas' long-absent father, and Caine's long-absent son. What follows proceeds like a checklist with no grace notes: Lucas meets Walken. Lucas rejects Walken. To reunite the two men, Caine visits his favorite KFC (a restaurant so heavily brand-identified throughout Around The Bend that the film begs to be re-titled Kentucky Fried Movie II), types up a series of scavenger-hunt-like instructions for the disposal of his ashes, stuffs them into a series of concentric KFC bags, then instantly and conveniently dies. Lucas resists Caine's posthumous orders, then gives in. Lucas, Walken, and Bobo dutifully travel together to a series of KFC restaurants, where they meet a few odd people and learn more about themselves and each other. They bond.
All of this might be quirky or heartwarming if anything about their story felt human. But of the cast, only Caine brings any warmth to his spare, ungiving material, and the way Roberts disposes of him the second he's no longer needed highlights the problem with Around The Bend: It's meant to be a story about the connections between people, but it doesn't treat those people as significant. Their personalities are a list of quirks. Their interactions are a list of character revelations. Their story is a list of steps on the road to emotional recovery. There are good ideas in Around The Bend, but they're presented in outline form, as the bare, dry bones of what could have been a living body.