A mild character drama, "The Open Road" pairs the established, celebrated, legendary acting chops of Jeff Bridges with the pipsqueak stance of Justin Timberlake. The match-up isn't as hilariously one-sided as feared, but "Open Road" isn't the most convincing domestic drama on the market, only truly enlivened by Bridges and his direct hit of foggy parental reluctance. The picture contains a few inspired moments of antagonism and redemption, but it's hard to get energized about a feature film that positions Timberlake in a leading role. The movie practically begs for more Bridges.
A failing minor league baseball player, Carlton Garrett (Justin Timberlake) is called to his mother's bedside for a favor. Before Katherine (Mary Steenburgen) is brought into surgery to repair her heart, she wants to see her ex-husband, Kyle (Jeff Bridges), again. At first refusing, Carlton is goaded into a retrieval mission, bringing along ex-girlfriend Lucy (Kate Mara) for support. Catching up to his infirmed, estranged, and alcoholic baseball superstar father, Carlton learns the smooth-talking Kyle wants nothing to do with the drive, initially agreeing to the reunion, but spending the entire trip finding ways to break his promise. Faced with a father he doesn't like, a vow to his mother that's impossible to keep, and an ex he still harbors feelings for, the drive from Ohio to Texas leaves Carlton in a state of panic, facing feelings he's bottled up years ago.
Written and directed by frequent Wim Wenders collaborator Michael Meredith, "The Open Road" seems to be intended as an intimate tale of redemption, spread out over miles of gorgeous, winding interstates. It's part road trip, part character drama, and it's scripted with an open heart toward the combustible relationships between fathers and sons.
However, Meredith's direction is clunky, peeling away the direct emotional effect of the film by wandering through several subplots that feel insignificant in the larger picture. "Open Road" plays like a film severely cut down from its original design, rushing through a highlight reel of familial irritation and lovesick blues before reaching its forgone conclusion. A film like this is never about the structure, but the sentiment; still, "Open Road" burns through delicate steps for Carlton and Kyle's rekindled relationship, in hurry to cram everything it needs to say before the magic 90-minute running time is up. These are men who haven't talked in five years, with untold time before that lost to miscommunication and bitterness. Meredith allows the characters to interact, but he's beholden to a plot that's always on the go, stunting the needed time to bring the pigheaded personalities to a tentative common ground.
Through the infinite talents of Jeff Bridges, "Open Road" hits a certain peak of sensitivity able to carry the film to the end. Playing a drunk Houston Astros legend getting by on conventions and the occasional autograph opportunity, Bridges plays the hazy consciousness wonderfully. It's a pie-eyed, gruff performance that perfectly communicates Kyle's discomfort, masked by a veneer of southern charm, carefully rehearsed and always insincere. Buttery voiced and wispy, Timberlake doesn't have the acting prowess to keep up with his co-star (or Mara for that matter, who captures romantic confusion well), often falling behind during crucial moments of confrontation. He's out of his league in "Open Road," though his commitment to Carlton's aggravation is admirable, just not believable.
Boasting an AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio), "Open Road" looks awfully flat on BD. Some DNR issues creep into view sporadically throughout the picture, with interesting facial detail removed for some of the close-ups. Colors are well balanced and useful for road trip pit stops, providing needed life to the cinematography. Black levels are disappointing during the feature, with bar interiors and nighttime sequences pushed into a muddy mess. Skintones are hot, but not distracting.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound mix has a few shining moments of delivery, primarily during an early baseball game sequence and a few boozy scenes that require active barroom atmosphere. Surround activity is minimal, kicking up during soundtrack selections and scenes of intense conflict. Dialogue is presented crispy and easy to follow, balanced suitably with the music cues and road trip sound effect nuances.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are offered.
A feature-length audio commentary with director Michael Meredith and actor Jeff Bridges remains as muted as the film itself, with the gentlemen contributing a soft, conversational tone to this personal drama. Meredith comes off a bit nervous, trying to articulate his artistic choices and various production challenges. Bridges is far more relaxed, sharing stories and thoughts on the film, the sporting world, and even California film incentive politics. The men mix well and get to the heart of the creative process, though the track is far from energetic.
"Behind the Scenes of 'The Open Road'" (6:45) offers a pleasing low-fi grainy camerawork for this BTS featurette, but the information is basic and recited with slight fatigue. Cast and crew interviews recount production origins and plot; however, once interest turns to locations, the energy noticeably perks up, permitting a few moments of interesting revelation and personal expression (particularly from co-star Harry Dean Stanton).
A Theatrical Trailer has been included.
"The Open Road" is pleasant enough when inside Carlton's rented Hummer, cruising down endless roads with a father he barely knows, speeding toward a reunion of indeterminate importance. The confined space permits the story to remain in a fascinating place of emotional limbo, offering the performers a chance to feel out their responses. The film could've used more stressful moments like this, breaking free of the manufactured narrative rest stops that slow the material down, missing organic waves of pathos along the way.