Blu-ray Review: The Open Road (2009)

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As coach Ted Danson reasons, baseball players “don't say things like eluding” especially as an excuse for a poor pitching performance. However, the word choice employed by the moody minor leaguer Carlton Garrett seems even more conspicuous when you consider that the struggling hurler in The Open Road is played by the 'N Sync who aspired to "bring sexy back," Mr. Justin Timberlake.

In writer/director Michael Meredith's independent film which the actors describe as “a slice of life” genre piece in the Blu-ray's succinct featurette, musician and former Mickey Mouseketeer Timberlake takes a swing at being the dramedy's protagonist as opposed to the bevy of antagonistic roles he admits he's taken on in the past.

And surely it's intriguing to watch Timberlake explore his range as an actor since he does have an appealing onscreen presence. Yet in Meredith's aptly named Open Road movie, he's incredibly outmatched when sharing scenes with veteran award-winning performers that include Danson's real-life wife Mary Steenburgen as Timberlake's dying mom, Jeff Bridges as his baseball Hall of Famer estranged dad, and Harry Dean Stanton as his protective granddad. Furthermore, because a bulk of Timberlake's performance is trying to not simply play catch but fire the ball back like it's on fire when Jeff Bridges' convention circuit, glory day reliving booze-hound throws him a curveball, Timberlake strikes out before he even he steps up to the plate.

Prior to Jeff Bridges' introduction, Timberlake proves to be a capable sport, even though we sense that infield goes way in during some genuinely tender moments where Mary Steenburgen gently eases authentic sweetness in Timberlake that makes their tight mother/son bond quite believable which is vital in ensuring he's going to be a player or protagonist for whom we can root. Making the most of her role as Carter's gravely ill mother Katherine, Steenburgen essentially serves as the movie's inciting incident and/or home plate to send Carter around the bases and well into The Open Road.

Announcing that she refuses to sign the consent form for a serious operation unless she can see and speak with Carter's wandering man-of-the-road father--the iconic and beloved athlete Kyle “Lonestar” Garrett-- Carter reluctantly agrees to her terms, with the reminder that the clock is ticking from his granddad Harry Dean Stanton who also tosses Timberlake some light softballs in the opening act.

Luckily before he's overpowered by Bridges, Timberlake's Carter is given the most valuable teammate via Kate Mara's strong ex-girlfriend Lucy who agrees to make the trip with Carter. As inevitably the trip suffers a number of setbacks, misunderstandings, confrontations, and arguments about the past between the self-involved father and his James Dean-esque sensitive and bitter son, the movie benefits from adding more layers to these scenes with the romantic subplot.

Normally a love story would be the last thing a small indie would need to divert focus, considering that Road is trying to be so many different things throughout since it deals with the need to find yourself, forgive those who've harmed you and come to terms with your family to get where you are going. Yet, because Timberlake's skill as a performer is so unequal to that of the mesmerizing Jeff Bridges who-- like Steenburgen-- adds extra layers to what could've been an interchangeable ego-maniacal rock star/actor/athlete/writer role, it's precisely the right play by Meredith.

Acting as a nice buffer to help prevent us from immediately seeing through the little chemistry and acting mismatch in the movie, Mara brings a much needed mixture of female strength and loveliness to her role that makes me eager to see her in future films including Iron Man 2 (the first of which ironically starred Bridges).

With the immediate understated sexual tension between Lucy and Carter that echoes his own parents' relationship (adding a next generation cathartic layer to bring the men closer together), we realize that there's several innings left in their relationship and that the platonic and flirtatious signals will ensure Meredith switch-hits in tone from comedic to dramatic.

Uneven throughout mostly because of Timberlake and also some too-on-the-nose lines and plot threads that are introduced and dropped, it's nonetheless a solid indie that moves into above average territory because of the great Jeff Bridges and a wonderful supporting cast including cameos by Lyle Lovett among others.

Essentially it's a mostly male version of Bonneville or a young adult road movie without the American Pie antics as it's a largely wholesome venture. And while you may end up with more questions than Meredith has answers such as why Timberlake seems to be the only one without a continuous Texan accent, the film is bound to do well on cable networks like Anchor Bay's associated Starz Channel.

Historically it's the first film on Blu-ray that I've ever received in studio screener form, thereby making Anchor Bay miles ahead of the rest in ensuring anti-piracy of high-definition titles if they should fall into another's hands. And although I'm not sure if this happened because it was a screener, there seemed to be a few second delay after you clicked a menu option before anything happened. Despite this flaw, admittedly overall the sound balance and picture were of superb quality.

However, since it was no doubt a low budget work and it is very well a "road movie," that largely takes place in hotels, restaurants, bars, hospitals, and inside cars, the Blu-ray never has a moment to really shine or give you the added reason you'd need to purchase it in high definition since Anchor Bay DVD quality has always been excellent. Therefore, for fans of Timberlake or Jeff Bridges' "The Dude" Big Lebowski, you should be your own umpire on this one to judge whether it's in or out and/or which format feels home safe.

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