Jake Johnson is an actor I’ve always dug. I never really got into “New Girl,” but he seemed likable and cool on it. Johnson’s mumblecore movies “Drinking Buddies” and “Win It All” are highlights of the subgenre. “Let’s Be Cops” is a dumb yet fun action comedy perfect for a Saturday or Sunday afternoon spent nursing a hangover on the couch. Johnson stole so-so efforts “Jurassic World” and “Tag” IMHO. The Peter B. Parker he voiced in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is insanely charming and easily the Spider-Man to whom I most directly relate. Hell, the dude played Jesus in a “Harold & Kumar” movie. What’s not to love?
“Ride the Eagle” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Friday, July 30) is the Jake Johnsonest flick to ever Jake Johnson – he not only stars in but also co-wrote and co-produced the picture. Mileage may vary depending upon your feelings regarding Johnson, but the film played like gangbusters for me. By my estimation it’s currently one of 2021’s best.
Johnson stars as Leif, an aging percussionist (mostly bongos) who’s living in a tiny house with his beloved dog Nora. The house is in the backyard of his band’s manager Gorka (Luis Fernandez-Gil). Leif spends his days and most of the movie smoking dope and hanging with Nora.
His “busy” schedule is interrupted by Missy (killer comedic character actress Cleo King), a woman who lived alongside Leif’s estranged Mom Honey (Susan Sarandon) in a commune some time ago. She’s there to inform him of Honey’s passing from cancer and of his conditional inheritance of her lovely Yosemite-based cabin. In order to take possession of the dwelling, Leif will have to complete Honey’s to-do list. Honey’s bidding brings Leif into contact with his former flame Audrey (D’Arcy Carden of “The Good Place”) as well as Honey’s ex-boyfriend Carl (J.K. Simmons).
“Ride the Eagle” is directed and co-written by Trent O’Donnell, with whom Johnson worked on 28 episodes of “New Girl.” The duo wrote great roles for their cast to inhabit and they make the most of ‘em. Johnson plays a lot of his scenes opposite only Nora and he still manages to be both magnetic and comedic. Phone calls between Leif and Audrey kinda call to mind Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy – they feel real and utterly relatable. Sarandon makes her presence deeply felt despite only appearing on VHS tapes and voiceover letter readings. Simmons’ Carl brings the laughs by calling Leif “fuckboy” and “sugar dick.”
“Ride the Eagle” is funny, but it’s not nearly as humorous as I expected it to be. What it lacks in laughs it more than makes up for with heart and genuine emotion. I cried at this movie … a lot. Hell, I’m crying thinking about it while writing this review. I might’ve connected with the film as deeply as I did as I recently lost a relative with whom I lost touch in the last years of her life. It has a wonderful message of forgiveness and actively encourages its audience to live their best lives. “Ride the Eagle” is what Quentin Tarantino calls a hangout movie. I genuinely loved hanging out with Leif and Nora for 88 minutes. I sincerely think y’all will too.