Ride the Eagle is pretty much what you’d expect it to be — a mumblecore, change-your-life dramedy about a bearded, flannel-wearing, aimless fortysomething learning to embrace his life thanks to videos left by his recently deceased mother.
The fortysomething in this case is Leif (Jake Johnson), introduced to us in a tiny house and living a life of relative leisure with his dog, Nora, and playing percussion (mostly bongos) for a band where the other members are 20 years his junior. Leif’s mother, Honey (Susan Sarandon), dies without even contacting him to tell him she was sick; she was an aged hippie with a cabin full of weed who didn’t believe in chemo or even acknowledging her illness up until the very end … that is, aside from a set of videotapes she left for Leif, with the condition that if he watches them and follows their conditions, he will inherit her massive lakeside cabin.
So Leif decides what the hell, might as well. Her lessons are pretty basic: Forgive yourself, stand up for yourself, catch a fish, apologize to past girlfriends, etc. He rekindles a phone romance with Audrey (D’Arcy Carden), the only woman he thinks fits the description of “one that got away.” Notably, Ride the Eagle was filmed during 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic and, as such, relies on Johnson and Carden to develop chemistry through split-screen and never together on screen. It works well, in part because the two of them are reliably likable and entertaining performers who can sell comedy on their own.
That’s important, especially for Johnson (who helped co-write the screenplay). Leif isn’t his career-defining character of Nick from the sitcom New Girl, but Johnson brings his same ability to humanize a character who, on paper, sounds like a real irredeemable loser. He’s mostly alone or with Dora for a lot of the story and it works. His physical and emotional comedy is always on point.
Although a few more characters pop up along Leif’s journey, none is more effective than Carl (J.K. Simmons), a neighbor of Honey’s and a semi-antagonist for Leif. There’s one scene where Carl just spouts insults at Leif and … well, it’s not worth spoiling, but Simmons has a commanding presence and the wilder the insults, the funnier the scene becomes.
There’s nothing surprising about Honey’s list of conditions, and the final thought boils down to similar “embrace life” philosophies seen in a lot of indie comedies. It’s not hard to know precisely where the story is going to go from the start or what to expect from this talented cast of performers. But it’s a particularly good and enjoyable version of the story, and given the way COVID clearly affected its production, it feels like an admirable attempt at reminding everyone that grief is OK, changing yourself is OK and embracing a new path if you need it is nothing to fear.