There are many ways to read an opening scene in which an elderly man glumly stares at himself in the bathroom mirror but perhaps only one way to interpret a shot that zeroes in on the surgery scar on his chest. It’s imminent death that’s on the mind of Ray, played by Frank Langella. Eventually, it’s all any of his family can think about in “Youth in Oregon,” a schematic and bathos-laden end-of-life indie from director Joel David Moore, whose title, if you replaced “Oregon” with “Asia” and said it out loud, cutely tells you the issue at hand.
Irascible Ray is a retired doctor two years removed from a heart attack that’s necessitated that he and his cheery, sociable wife, Estelle (Mary Kay Place), live with their daughter, Kate (Christina Applegate), her husband, Brian (Billy Crudup), and teenage granddaughter, Annie (Nicola Peltz). It’s a tense household, especially with Ray, the kind of grump who spurs his attentive but increasingly impatient son-in-law to repeatedly suggest assisted living as an option.
But Ray’s the one with a definitive plan, shocking everybody at his 80th birthday dinner by announcing that he wants to die and will be leaving the following day on a cross-country trip to Oregon, where he’s made plans to see a physician who will allow him to be euthanized.
Quickly the contrivances pile up in Andrew Eisen’s screenplay. Why not stay in the East and do it in Vermont, where it is also legal? ECBecause Oregon holds sentimental value, and what would a dysfunctional family movie be without a road trip? Ray’s loved ones are naturally distraught, but since he withheld that his condition is incurable, nobody believes a physician will honor his wish, and they therefore assume he’ll be back home eventually.
So why doesn’t Ray bolster his decision by giving them that news? Because movies like these need a secret for later drama. And that way, Kate can live with not going on a trip she sees as a folly, and the husband who doesn’t get along with Ray can drive him instead, leading to bickering shenanigans. But just to make sure there’s an extra reason Kate doesn’t go, she needs to deal with Annie’s troublemaking ways.
The road trip follows the usual template: wackiness (a suspicious pill Estelle gives Brian to stay awake), lawlessness (breaking into a bird sanctuary) and stabs at redemption when they make pit stops to visit estranged offspring: Ray’s gay adult son (an appealingly grounded Josh Lucas) in Salt Lake City and Brian’s college-age kid in Boise, Idaho.
Moore is primarily known as an actor but this is the third feature he’s directed, and he proves surprisingly unable to get layered performances out of some great actors. Langella growls, Crudup smirks, Applegate barks/cries, Lucas wryly comments and Place offers weary sass, but altogether it smacks of waiting for each character’s big vulnerable moment rather than fostering a tight-knit ensemble in which a variety of emotions are always in play.
You rarely believe these characters know one another, but you certainly accept that they’re not easy to be around. (Ray’s love of bird-watching comes across as a signpost for hidden tenderness — see, he’s not a monster! — rather than a true character shading.) Moore also routinely tramples on his cast’s what-about-me opportunities with terrible music cues intended to push whimsy or sadness, along with distractingly arty shots, from blurred edges to skewed vantage points and framing.
It’s an insecure movie, even if it’s firmly on the side of dying with dignity. But in its attempt to wring humor and sentiment out of the drama that swirls around that decision, “Youth in Oregon” throws a forced pity party instead.
‘Youth in Oregon’
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena