Review: ‘Ride the Eagle,’ starring Jake Johnson, D’Arcy Carden, J.K. Simmons and Susan Sarandon

August 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jake Johnson in “Ride the Eagle” (Photo courtesy of Decal)

“Ride the Eagle”

Directed by Trent O’Donnell

Culture Representation: Taking place in California’s Yosemite area and briefly in Los Angeles, the comedy/drama “Ride the Eagle” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one Latino and one African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A bachelor in his 40s travels to his estranged late mother’s remote house in the Yosemite forest, which he will inherit on the condition that he complete a set of tasks that she has left for him at the house.

Culture Audience: “Ride the Eagle” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching low-budget movies that skillfully blend adult-oriented comedy with heartfelt sentiment.

Susan Sarandon in “Ride the Eagle” (Photo courtesy of Decal)

“Ride the Eagle” presents a charming mix of sweet drama and salty comedy in this story that covers the gamut of reconnecting with the past, appreciating the present, and moving forward from regrets in the future. It’s the type of independent film that proves that you don’t need a big budget or a large cast to have an impactful and entertaining movie. Thanks to admirable acting and the movie’s unfussy tone, a variety of viewers will find it easy to connect with “Ride the Eagle.”

“Ride the Eagle” is the feature-film directorial debut of Trent O’Donnell, whose background has mainly been in directing episodes of comedy TV series, including the 2011-2018 sitcom “New Girl.” O’Donnell co-wrote the “Ride the Eagle” screenplay with “New Girl” co-star Jake Johnson, and they are two of the movie’s producers. Having worked together on “New Girl” seems to have greatly benefited how O’Donnell and Johnson wrote the screenplay, which has a naturalistic flow that doesn’t feel like it was “written by committee.”

In “Ride the Eagle,” Johnson portrays Leif Reinhold, a Los Angeles bachelor musician in his 40s who gets some unexpected news in the beginning of the story. His mother’s longtime friend Missy (played by Cleo King) has shown up at his place to tell him that Leif’s estranged mother Suzanne “Honey” Reinhold (played by Susan Sarandon) has died of cancer. Honey abandoned Leif when he was a child, in order to live a free-spirited hippie lifestyle, and he hasn’t been in contact with her for years.

It’s never revealed in the story who raised Leif (his father is not mentioned), but what’s abundantly clear is that Leif considers his mother to be essentially a stranger. When he gets the news of her death, he doesn’t feel happy or sad. He says several times in the movie that he doesn’t feel much of anything at all about his mother being dead. Leif doesn’t seem to have any other relatives, since no family member except his mother is mentioned in the movie.

Missy has also gone to Leif’s home to tell him that Honey left her cabin-styled house in the remote Yosemite forest for Leif to inherit. There’s only one condition: Leif has to complete a set of tasks that Honey left for him on a list at the house. If he doesn’t complete the tasks, then the house will be sold and the proceeds will go to the charity of Honey’s choice.

Leif doesn’t feel emotionally attached to the house, but he’s intrigued enough to go there to see what the tasks are. His current living situation is also less-than-ideal. He’s been living in a makeshift guest house in his band manager’s backyard. Leif is a loner, and his closest companion is his black Labrador Retriever named Nora.

Before he can go on this trip, Leif has to ask permission from his erratic manager Gorka (played by Luis Fernandez-Gil) to take a day or two off from band rehearsals. There’s a somewhat funny segment where Gorka gets irritated that Leif has woken him up to have this conversation. Leif tells Gorka why he’s taking the trip, Gorka gives Leif the go-ahead, and Gorka assures Leif that he will tell the rest of the band why Leif will be unavailable for the next few days.

Viewers might wonder why Leif (who is a percussionist) doesn’t tell the band himself. But there are hints throughout the movie that Leif is the type of person who doesn’t communicate well if it means he can avoid uncomfortable conversations. Leif’s band members are not seen or heard in the movie, but it’s revealed in he story that Leif is 20 years older than the rest of the people in the band.

With Nora as his travel companion, Leif heads north to Yosemite to check out the house that he might inherit. When he gets inside, he starts looking in the kitchen cabinets and finds them filled with jars of marijuana and other plant-based drugs. Leif doesn’t look too surprised. His mother Honey was a painter, and there are several of her paintings hanging on the house’s walls.

Not long after he arrives at the house, the phone rings. The caller on the other line is a man who angrily asks Leif who he is but the caller won’t identify himself. Leif can barely say anything before the caller starts cussing out Leif and ends the phone call with this threat: “I’m coming for you, fuck boy!”

Leif is taken aback but not too rattled, because he thinks that the caller is probably one of his mother’s weird friends. The caller is later revealed to be someone named Carl (played by J.K. Simmons), who ends up stalking Leif. In the house’s living room, Leif finds folders containing the “to do” lists detailing the tasks that he has to complete. Next to these folders is a VHS tape containing messages to Leif from his mother, who wanted him to see these messages after she died.

The rest of the movie shows Leif going through the list of tasks and having some unexpected experiences along the way. One of the tasks is to take a kayak boat ride by himself, row across the lake, “feel the energy of the water,” and talk about his feelings about Honey’s death. Leif follows the instructions and says aloud: “I feel nothing. Sorry, but we didn’t know each other well enough.”

Another task is to go over to a nearby house while no one is there and leave a note in the back bedroom, and then exit immediately. No one seems to be home in the unlocked house, and Leif still feels uncomfortable being an intruder. He can’t resist the urge to read the note, which says: “Hey, dipshit. I owe you nothing, you rat fuck!”

Just as Leif is about to leave, something fairly predictable happens: He sees a man in a yellow puffer jacket (presumably someone who lives in the house) pass by in a nearby room. Leif manages to escape without getting caught, but viewers see that this mystery man has observed Leif running away from the house. It’s later revealed who this house resident is.

Another instruction for Leif is to contact any ex-love whom he thinks was “the one who got away” and make an apology to that person. Leif doesn’t think he’s ever had a “love of his life,” but the closest person who fits that description is an ex-girlfriend named Audrey (played by D’Arcy Carden), whom he dated for three years back in the early 2000s. Their phone conversation is funny and awkward.

At first, Audrey pretends that she doesn’t remember Leif, but then she lets him know that she’s just joking. It just so happens that Audrey is single too, having recently broken up with someone. And you know what that means: Audrey and Leif aren’t going to have just one phone conversation. However, she’s an eight-hour drive away, so there’s a long-distance issue if they have any type of reunion in person.

Some other things happen in the story (Nora goes missing, the angry caller comes looking for Leif), but there’s not a lot of contrived clutter. Slowly but surely, viewers see that Honey’s pre-recorded video messages and her instructions start to have an effect on Leif. The emotions he closed off from himself about his mother’s abandonment and why he and his mother never reconnected are feelings that he can no longer push aside or ignore during this experience.

All of the principal cast members bring memorable qualities to their roles. Sarandon and Simmons do versions of characters they’ve done on screen many times before (aging hippie for her, hot-tempered grouch for him), but they play these types so well that it looks very natural on screen. Carden’s Audrey character is sarcastically funny and emotionally intelligent in a way that a lot of female love interests are in indie dramedies like is one.

However, Johnson is front and center for the entire story, which wouldn’t work as well without his ability to have relatable humanity in his acting. “Ride the Eagle” succeeds not just because of the screenwriting and directing, but also because of Johnson’s appealing performance as a middle-aged man who has to deal with his wounded inner child. Leif is not an annoying man-child character that’s often found in comedic films because he’s mature enough to understand that people can cut themselves off from family members but can’t really escape from how those family members might have affected them.

Decal released “Ride the Eagle” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 30, 2021.