Through writing and starring in Digging for Fire (2015), Win it All (2017) and starring in Drinking Buddies (2013), all directed by Joe Swanberg; as well as Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), directed by Colin Trevorrow – Jake Johnson has established and maintained his schlubby manchild Nick Miller persona for the best part of a decade now. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as most women I know (and I’m no exception) are fully in love with Nick Miller (Johnson’s character from New Girl, who has only grown in iconic status since the show has finished).
You know going into a Jake Johnson indie film exactly what kind of character you’re going to meet – a wise cracking loser who ultimately is soft-hearted and loveable. With Johnson now 43, he isn’t showing many signs of this persona changing or growing. But if the sound of gazing upon a bearded Johnson in dungarees, who spends most of a ninety-minute runtime in a cabin in the woods talking to his black lab is appealing to you – you will not be disappointed by Ride the Eagle, which has Johnson once again on both writing and starring duties.
Here, Johnson plays Leif, a bongo-player in a band full of people younger than him, who is living alone with his faithful dog Nora in a cockroach-filled cabin in the grounds of his manager/agent’s hip LA property. He learns that his estranged mother Honey (Susan Sarandon) has passed away and that he’s inherited her cabin in the woods, an 8 hour drive from LA. When he gets to the cabin, he finds cabinets full of weed and mushrooms and a videotape left by his mother. He can only inherit the cabin if he fulfills the hippy scavenger hunt she has left for him.
While some of the quests do involve him having to go places, others are more philosophical in nature and maybe the most significant is calling “the one that got away.” Although Leif doesn’t feel that strongly about any of his ex-girlfriends, he half-heartedly calls the best of the bunch – Audrey (The Good Place‘s D’Arcy Carden) and does actually reignite a spark with her. She does get some really funny lines and their easy banter with one another is entertaining. He also becomes engaged in a bizarre turf war with an ex-boyfriend of his mother, who believes that Leif is Honey’s new hot young lover. This leads to Leif breaking and entering, dead rabbits smeared on his van and his beloved dog Nora going missing.
It’s a gentle dramedy, with extremely low stakes, but that can be a welcome change of pace from high concept fare. I do get the impression that we’re supposed to feel sorry for Leif at various points, but he isn’t upset about his Mum dying or being single, so why should we care? He cares about his music and his dog and that’s about it. When his “career” and “house” come under threat, we know that he has just inherited a large and gorgeous cabin in the woods, so it’s hard to muster much feeling about it.
The only thing we really learn about Honey is that she abandoned Leif when he was 12, although what happened to him after this point is unclear. Did he have a father? Was he put into foster care? None of this is explained. Susan Sarandon does deliver an enjoyable performance as the free-spirited Honey, via the VHS tape she leaves for her son. She’s the kind of person who it’s entertaining to spend time with via a screen but would be insufferable in real life. This definitely comes across as a pandemic film, with Leif’s main interactions being with his dead mother on a TV screen and Audrey over the phone. This does work surprisingly well though and Johnson is adept at keeping our attention. Honey’s demented ex provides a welcome surprise (in person) cameo towards the end of the film, with some choice dialogue and delicious line-deliveries, as we would expect from the calibre of actor involved.
Ride the Eagle won’t prove especially memorable, but is a pleasant way to spend 90 minutes. The entire film rises and falls on Johnson and how appealing you find his onscreen persona, but it’s fair to say that Nick Miller stans are in for a good time here. It does offer a portrayal of a rarely-depicted unconventional and difficult mother-child relationship, although it also implies that years of neglect and hurt can be resolved with a cutesy hippy quest of discovery. It is interesting to contemplate how this would be viewed if it was a father and child, however. Ultimately, it’s probably best not to think about it too deeply and enjoy the witty dialogue, the gorgeous setting and Johnson’s endearing performance.
DECAL will release comedy RIDE THE EAGLE in Theatres, On Demand and Digital on July 30, 2021.