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'Land Ho!' review: Low-key, but refreshing

A scene from "Land Ho."

A scene from "Land Ho." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Filmmaker Martha Stephens knows a good thing when she sees one. Her second cousin, Earl Lynn Nelson, is one of those natural-born characters whose personality also shines through on screen. A practicing oculoplastic surgeon, the 72-year-old Nelson still enjoys classic rock, a stiff drink and a fine joint. Stephens, while preparing for a vacation in Iceland last year, had an idea: Why not bring her life-loving, loud-shirted, uber-American cousin along and film him?

The result is "Land Ho!," in which Nelson, playing a version of himself named Mitch, travels through Iceland with his uptight friend Colin (Paul Eenhoorn, a professional Australian actor). Shot in 16 days by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz (they also co-wrote the script), "Land Ho!" is a low-key, odd-couple comedy built mostly around Nelson's coarse ad-libs and Eenhoorn's sighing reactions. The elegant, understated photography is a plus. Plot and character developments, however, are afterthoughts.

Nelson is such an earthy, likable presence that "Land Ho!" initially gets by solely on his charm. Various vulgar metaphors -- never offensive, but definitely unprintable -- roll off his tongue in a gravelly voice and an unhurried drawl. Riffing on a confrontational art-piece at a Reykjavík museum, for example, Mitch ignores the religious theme and zeros in on a swatch of lace. "Stevie Nicks," he says, in a tone that tells us exactly where his thoughts are straying. Still, Mitch is a gentleman: When he and Colin spend an evening with two very young women, Ellen and Janet (Karrie Crouse and Elizabeth McKee), nobody crosses any lines.

That's emblematic of a problem with "Land Ho!" Not much happens. Although Mitch will spill a secret and Colin will shed his inhibitions, "Land Ho!" is so small-scale, so fine-grained, that it barely registers. Still, it's refreshing to see two gray-haired stars in what feels like a hip mumblecore project. Thanks to this movie's success, Stephens has quit her job as a substitute teacher to become a full-time filmmaker. As for Nelson, he shouldn't be surprised if Hollywood comes calling.

PLOT Two vintage-age friends take a road trip through Iceland.

RATING R (language, adult themes)

CAST Earl Lynn Nelson, Paul Eenhoorn


BOTTOM LINE Nelson, a non-professional actor and natural charmer, gives this low-key comedy a pulse. Endearing but nearly eventless.

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