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Review: Jake Johnson comedy ‘Ride the Eagle’ never takes off

A man sits on a felled tree
Jake Johnson in the movie “Ride the Eagle.”
(Decal)

“Ride the Eagle” may have had physical production limitations as it was shot in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic (and before the arrival of vaccines). But that fraught time period doesn’t excuse the movie’s half-baked, exposition-heavy script, written by star Jake Johnson (Nick from TV’s “New Girl”) and director Trent O’Donnell. Good intentions aside, this sluggish film never soars beyond its innate contrivances and frequently flat, knee-jerk humor.

Leif (Johnson) is a rudderless L.A. musician whose estranged, free-spirited mother, Honey (Susan Sarandon), dies and leaves behind an instructive to-do list he must complete in order to inherit her Yosemite cabin. He travels to the scenic spot with his trusty Labrador retriever and one by one, attempts to tick off the prescribed tasks as outlined by Honey on grainy VHS tapes. (Okay, she’s a throwback but couldn’t she have recorded her messages on, like, a smartphone?)

These activities, which Honey concocts as “life lessons” to the son she left when he was a child — the full circumstances are annoyingly vague, as is much else here — feel generic and presumptuous given how little she seems to have known him.

The orders are also pretty toothless; Leif’s on the honor system.

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Some directives, including that Leif catch a fish with his bare hands (“Be the predator, not the prey!”), go nowhere fast. Others, such as reconnecting with “the one that got away,” go nowhere slowly; Leif’s protracted, unconvincing volley of texts and split-screen phone calls with ex-girlfriend Audrey (D’Arcy Carden) often feels made up on the fly.

J.K. Simmons shows up in a thankless, awkwardly written role as Honey’s jealous lover. And scenes with the dashing Luis Fernandez-Gil, who plays Leif’s cavalier landlord and band manager, mostly pad the film’s brief running time and thin concept.

Johnson hangdogs his way through his fuzzy, hapless part well enough. Sarandon, though, brings a lovely quality to her video bits, which is an extra-large accomplishment given the artificiality of both her character and the story’s conceit.

It’s great that Johnson and company were able to keep creatively engaged during dark times but this “Eagle” lands with a thud.

'Ride the Eagle'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.

Playing: Starts July 29, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; also on VOD


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