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October 17, 2004

Eccentric actor brings even the worst roles to life

On October 9, the Chicago International Film Festival presented "An Evening With Christopher Walken," which featured a screening of the new movie Around the Bend and an interview with, yes, Christopher Walken.

Around the Bend is a disappointing movie—not a bad one—that starts strong, but slowly slips into increasingly disparate strands of maudlin sentiment and faux-zany antics. It tells the tale of the Lair men, a paternal lineage ranging from the terminal Henry (Michael Caine) to the absentee Turner (Walken) to the uptight Jason (Josh Lucas) to the precocious young Zach (Jonah Bobo). Turner's unexpected arrival on the doorstep prompts Henry to declare that they need to celebrate by eating somewhere fancy; one cut later we're treated to an awkward family tableaux in a late night KFC (either writer-director Jordan Roberts is a big fan of the Colonel, or he got paid a lot of money, considering all the chicken that gets eaten in this movie).

Walken's character is a former junkie who disappeared after the two-year old Jason survived a car accident that killed his mother. Turner's not here to make amends, just to pay his respects and pass on through, but [cue syrupy voice-over] sometimes life has other plans. Before Turner can skip out on the morning bus, Henry dies and leaves behind a complicated (and Kentucky-Fried) set of instructions intended to bring the remaining Lair men closer together, via scattering his ashes in pre-selected locations across the Southwest.

Around the Bend's wheels come off slowly, but they're pretty much gone two thirds of the way through; the tweaked humor so engaging at first slips into random and cheap set-pieces. "Now they've stolen a dog! Isn't that hilarious! Isn't that so unusual?!" the script desperately cries. In fairness, when Michael Caine opens a movie eagerly confiding that he's got a "woody," there are not many places to go but downhill. While the humor gets strained, the pathos knob gets overcranked, as Around the Bend builds toward a revelation that cannot hold the weight Jordan Roberts invests in it—not only because I happened to deduce the secret ahead of time, but because Caine's from-beyond-the-grave machinations sap honest tension from the encounter: He set these pieces in motion knowing where they would end, and he in fact told them what they needed to do to achieve that ending.

Around the Bend's greatest accomplishment is letting us watch Christopher Walken, who shines brightest of all the figures on screen (with the exception of Caine, who is delightful but also necessarily brief). It's rare, these days, that he graces the screen with a leading role, in a fully fleshed performance and presentation of character. Walken's classic early roles were his intense and masterful turn in The Deer Hunter and his hilariously unsettling cameo in Annie Hall; over the last decade, especially thanks to his brilliant scene in Pulp Fiction, the Annie Hall model has dominated, as Walken became what Roger Ebert once called "Hollywood's version of a relief pitcher." It's a pleasure to see him stretch out and inhabit a character more nuanced than his normal roles allow for, to watch the camera linger on his odd, sharp features as they twitch with thought and suppressed emotion.

In person, Walken comes off as surprisingly not self-conscious, considering the manner in which he is received: Following a brief montage from his films interspersed with his softshoe in the "Weapon of Choice" video, the audience leaped screaming to its feet with a sense that this was a man capable of anything, one who might descend to the stage from the heavens, or at least come on tap-dancing. Walken was received—as he is often interpreted—as if he is less a person than a persona, a calculated act, but that's not the sense I got from him. He seemed genuine. A little strange, certainly, but not randomly so. Walken's otherness stems from a transparent and slightly twisted internal logic. He was interviewed by Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune, who made an obsessive effort to get behind the nonexistent mask. Asked which of his own movies he best enjoyed, Walken said he was quite fond of Puss in Boots. "I played Puss," he explained. Yet Wilmington asked several times, "Aside from Puss in Boots, what's really your favorite movie?" a question Walken didn't dignify with a reply.

The audience asked better questions, as we learned that Kevin Spacey does the best Walken-impression, that he's happy he didn't get cast as Han Solo because it would've ended his career, and that, when asked if Prophecy IV was in the works, he responded "I liked the Prophecy movies too, but I figured three was enough." Throughout his appearance, Walken was unassuming and hilarious, far more entertaining and genuine than the movie he was there to promote.