The thing about “Ride the Eagle” is we have a funny, sweet, insightful, low-key charmer of a story that’s all about making human connections, reconciling broken relationships and finding solace in the companionship of another fellow traveler on this planet — and yet the main characters are almost never in the same room with one another.
In fact, one of ‘em is dead and exists only on VHS.
That title makes it sounds like this might be some kind of bad “Top Gun” knockoff, but “Ride the Eagle” is set in the beautiful isolation of Yosemite country, primarily in a gorgeous and spacious cabin set in the woods — a cabin Jake Johnson’s Leif stands to inherit from his recently departed mother, Honey (Susan Sarandon), a lifelong bohemian hippie who abandoned Leif when he was just 12, and was continually rebuffed when she tried to reconnect with him in later years.
Leif is now in his early 40s, aimlessly drifting through life as a pot-smoking bongo player in a marginal band populated by guys half his age. Upon learning Honey has passed away after a bout with cancer, Leif feels little or no emotion, but he’s jazzed about inheriting Honey’s fabulous cabin, which she has left him in her will — but it’s a “conditional inheritance.” As Honey explains on a VHS tape she has left for Leif, he must complete a series of tasks before the cabin is his. (Of course, there’s no way Honey can ascertain whether Leif truly completes the tasks, what with her being dead and all. He’s on the honor system.)
The tasks have titles such as “Express Yourself”; “Eat What You Kill” (Leif’s attempts to whack a fish with rocks are hilarious); “Love Is Important,” in which Leif is told to call “the one that got away,” and a final journey called “Green Lake,” and we’ll say no more about that last challenge other than it’s a real punch to the heart.
As for the one that got away: Leif rifles through his mental Rolodex of ex-girlfriends and lands on Audrey (D’Arcy Carden). He reaches her on the phone some eight years after they broke up — and as timing would have it, just as Audrey has ended a recent and quite serious romance.
Just as Jake Johnson and Susan Sarandon somehow manage to establish a relationship just through Honey’s videotaped messages and Leif’s reactions, Johnson and Carden have a real and funny and endearing rom-com banter, even though it’s solely via texts and phone conversations. This is a tribute to the fine performances and also the writing by Johnson and director Trent O’Donnell (old mates from “New Girl”).
Same can be said for the great J.K. Simmons as Honey’s on-and-off boyfriend, who stalks Leif in the belief he’s Honey’s latest boy toy and has a wonderfully offbeat extended reaction when he finds out Honey is dead, and Leif is her son.
Johnson and O’Donnell wrote and filmed “Ride the Eagle” during the early months of the COVID outbreak, and what a clever and effective way they found to make a wonderful little movie that makes no mention of the pandemic and doesn’t seem to be set during the pandemic at all. In organic fashion, these people just happen to be in different locales (or states of being) over the course of Leif’s journey.