||Minimalist movies needn’t be of minimal interest, but all too often they are. Despite general approbation, I’m afraid this is one of them. Though it’s possible to read a good deal of deeper meaning into Kelly Reichert’s “Old Joy”—many reviewers have done so since it premiered at Sundance in 2006—to some of us the meaning may exist in the mind of the beholder more than in the film itself. And you may just find the picture, about two old friends taking a trip to the wilderness, a minimalist stroll not worth taking.
The buddies are Mark (David London), a married Portland guy who’s apparently a bit irritated by the constant demands of his pregnant wife (Tanya Smith), and Kurt (Will Oldham), a near-homeless fellow who calls Mark and invites him to drive into the woods to enjoy some little-known hot springs found there. Along the way they reminiscence, commenting about how things have changed; it’s obvious that they’ve grown apart, that Kurt’s rather desperate to reconnect, and that Mark soon comes to realize that it’s pretty much impossible for them to do so. They also talk about the beautiful surroundings.
And to be sure, as captured by Peter Sillen’s camera, the outdoor scenes have a homely beauty. But otherwise the ramble that makes up “Old Joy,” marked by performances that are as functional as everything else about the picture, doesn’t amount to a great deal. We quickly get that the two men, who once might have had a lot in common, no longer do—that the one’s opted into the establishment, however reluctantly, and the other resolutely resists assimilation into “ordinary” society—and that it’s unlikely that Mark will turn his back on his family, however unsatisfied he might be. It certainly comes as no surprise that in the end, the pair simply return to Portland and go their separate ways, presumably for good.
But if “Old Joy” doesn’t do much, at least it doesn’t do it for very long: the brief running-time, a bare seventy minutes or so, is a blessing. But the brevity alone is hardly a reason to see it. In many respects “Old Joy” is similar to another minimalist film that was widely praised, David Gordon Green’s “George Washington.” Nothing much happened in that movie, either, but some saw its stark but poetic imagery compelling in and of itself. If you were one of them, Reichert’s picture may also satisfy you. If not, well, there are plenty of other options.