Road trip movies are a staple of American cinema. As such, this particular film sub-genre has a number of its own sub-genres, such as the wacky comedy road trip (National Lampoon’s Vacation, The Hangover), the girls rule road trip (Thelma and Louise), and the “drugs are fun, kids” road trip (Easy Rider, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).
But, of course, the road trip movie is not only an American phenomenon. Canada, too, apparently has quite the number of pretty sights and biggest balls of twine to marvel over, and these are all proudly put on display in their cancer road trip movie, One Week.
As far as subgenres go, the I’m-dying-and-I-need-to-find-the-meaning-of-life road trip movie is usually right up there for me with inspirational sports films and Katherine Heigl romantic comedies. Meaning, Yeah, that film sure sounds swell and all, but I think I’ll pass so I can go jump off a bridge instead, thanks.
But One Week had Joshua Jackson in it, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.
Ben (Joshua Jackson) is diagnosed with cancer, stage four, and since that’s the kind of news that’s hard to take in (and since he’s already pretty unhappy with his life anyway) he decides to take a road trip on his new motorcycle across Canada.
1. For a movie about cancer and finding yourself and all that, One Week is a surprisingly funny film, and the humor is almost entirely due to the voiceover narration. I’ve bitched a lot about voiceovers in past reviews, but when they’re executed well, it’s a joy to watch, and I thoroughly enjoyed Campbell Scott’s commentary. In a way, he almost becomes his own character. He’s not just some guy tossing out inspirational quotes or needlessly telling the audience things that they can actually see on the screen. His narration adds layers to what you’re already watching. Sometimes, it even moves the plot along. The whole thing is exceptionally refreshing.
2. So, despite my initial misgivings, I actually ended up liking One Week a lot. Really, I think a lot of people would. Still, there are probably two groups of people who will get the most out of it, and those groups are one, Canadians, and two, struggling writers.
Almost every review I read about this movie made a point to say how aggressively Canadian this film is, and that’s true in a sense, but only in the same way that American road trip movies celebrate America and all its peculiarities. I mean, the movie is clearly proud to be a Canadian one, but it’s not so alien that I can’t appreciate or understand what’s happening. Of course, Canadians will get more of the references, which is cool for them (personally, I love watching movies that take place in Northern California) but non-Canucks shouldn’t have any trouble relating to the film at all.
In fact, the only thing that really took me by surprise was a casual reference to Ben unrolling the rim of a coffee cup to see if he’d won something. Is this a common thing? Do all coffee companies in Canada do this? Do they ever put lame internet codes instead of a standard ‘You Won This or That’ message, you know like soda companies do on the inside of their bottle caps? I’m completely fascinated.
As for struggling writers:
Again, I’m sure that non-writers will have no trouble relating to a protagonist who has settled for a career that he doesn’t want. Still, as a writer with a seemingly useless BA in English, I feel a little more connected to Ben than, say, other, non-disillusioned English majors might, what with the identical rejection letters from publishing markets, famous quotations studied in school, thinly veiled autobiographical writing, etc, etc. There’s a lot for struggling writers to identify with.
3. As with any road trip movie, there are a lot of endearingly odd side characters who Ben encounters as he travels. This can be tricky to pull off because these people do sometimes come off as a touch quirky for quirky’s sake—you know, how pretty much everyone Ben talks to has to say something SIGNIFICANT—but, overall, it works, I think, because each encounter is so brief. Also, since Ben is so clearly looking for some kind of Sign anyway, it makes sense that he’d be inclined to attach extra weight and importance to any odd encounter or any stranger’s words. That’s what road trips are all about, right?
4. All the acting is pretty good. I don’t know that there’s anything screaming ‘Oscar nominee,’ but I think Joshua Jackson gives an understated performance that works really well with the narration. It’s definitely a lot less snarky than other roles I’ve seen him in.
5. One of the things I like most about One Week is how well everything fits together, and how much detail goes into Ben’s characterization. The narrator gives you a couple of very brief glimpses into Ben’s past, and you can watch how those moments in his life (and they’re small moments, too, not the kind of thing that flashbacks usually bother to show) have really shaped his whole perception of himself and the world around him. I also like that Ben’s not ridiculously tragic. He may very well be dying, and he’s not happy with the life he has, but he isn’t also an orphan with a murdered younger sister and, I don’t know, a dead puppy or something. Ben strikes me as a very real guy, and nothing he does, whether its a good idea or not, seems out of character for him.
6. Like any self-respecting indie film, One Week has a decent, indie soundtrack. New, favorite song of the moment: Wintersleep’s “Weighty Ghost.” (If you’re interested, the music video is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-iW0zL2LI0)
7. Finally, some quotes before I get into spoilers.
Narrator: “Ben taught the same books that he had been taught, that his father had been taught, that, in all likelihood, Shakespeare’s father had been taught.”
Narrator: “In a burst of power walking prowess, she just managed to catch the 5:45 train.”
Fran: “Though if I could get laid every now and again, I might feel a lot happier.” (Ben looks a bit alarmed, and Fran laughs in his face.) “No offense, but I like my men XXL. Besides, when I make my move, it usually involves a few wine coolers and a complete lack of subtlety.”
Narrator: “And so, inexplicably happy to be alive, Ben tried to recreate one of those movie moments where the hero dances uninhibitedly, finally able to throw off the shackles of convention through the transformative power of a pop song . . . Ben, however couldn’t pull off the feat. He felt like an idiot trying to be that guy. Moreover, he couldn’t dance.”
(This may be my very favorite thing that I’ve ever heard.)
Overall, I really enjoyed this film. The biggest problem I had with it—and, admittedly, it’s enough of a problem to knock it down from an A to possibly even a B+—happens at the end and is thus completely spoilerific. But even though I really dislike this one thing that happens, I think One Week‘s completely worth watching. The humor really caught me by surprise, and I think its one of the better “I’m-dying-so-I-need-to-find-the-meaning-of-life movies” I’ve seen.
But for those of you who need to know exactly what I didn’t like about the film, continue on . . .
Before I get to The Problem, here’s what happens with the rest of the story: Ben starts wondering if he really loves Samantha (his fiancee, kind of forgot to mention her before), or if he just cares about her. He sleeps with another girl on his journey. When he immediately confesses this to Samantha, she forgives him . . . surprising and refreshing, since I assumed this would be a huge, thirty-minute fight that I’d have to yawn repeatedly through . . . but the affair doesn’t really even matter because Ben realizes that, he in fact, doesn’t truly love Sam, and they break up.
This could have been a really annoying or badly written storyline, but they don’t go the easy way out and make Sam a shrew, and neither do they make Ben seem like a useless jackass who’s just using her all this time. He clearly cares about her, and the film makes a point to show all the things he loves about her, even though he doesn’t love her.
(Also, I adore the fact that amidst all this breakup drama, Sam worries that people will think she dumped Ben because he has cancer. Because she’s right. That’s probably what a lot of people would think. Well, maybe Ben and Sam can mail out cards or something.)
Now, to the Problem: the voiceover narration is revealed to be an older Ben Tyler, reading from his published novel, One Week. And . . . I hate this. I don’t mind that Ben makes it . . . I’ve seen my share of utterly depressing cancer movies; I don’t mind an uplifting one, now and again . . . but that he’s reading from this novel . . . UGH. It’s not just that it’s a cliche. It’s a problem with internal logic.
See, throughout the film, the narrator is clearly omniscient. Not only does he explain the motivations of several different characters, he shows what would happened to a couple of side characters because of Ben’s road trip. (One lady, Fran, meets her true love because of him; another nurse doesn’t get killed in a train accident.) These are things that Ben couldn’t possibly know, so there’s no way this novel could be a memoir (as is the case in Stand By Me. There’s no problem with internal logic there. This is totally different.)
So, if Older Ben isn’t reading his memoir, then he’s reading from his fiction novel, probably another thinly veiled autobiography that found a publishing home this time around. But this interpretation, while logically consistent, takes a lot away from the hour and a half you just invested in watching this guy ride around Canada. The audience can no longer can be sure how much of it actually ever happened, and if side characters like Fran ever really existed. And even if she did exist, did she really meet the love of her life like the narrator told us? Hell, for all we know, Fran got up the next day and got hit by a truck. After all, it’s not like Older Ben would know otherwise.
Now, of course the whole point of this ending is that Ben beat the odds and got the life he wanted when he learned to take chances and believe and all that nonsense, but as much as I like the message, I hate that the narrator is Older Ben. It’s a completely unnecessary tie-in. I didn’t need to know who the narrator was. Hell, I didn’t want to know who the narrator was. And I sure as hell didn’t want to know that this the whole story I’ve been watching for the past hour and a half is just Older Ben’s Utterly Skewed Version of his Younger Days where he apparently cast himself as unsung hero. Lamesauce, people. Serious lamesauce.
Despite my intense dislike for the end, though, I still really like this movie, and I’m glad I watched it. I would definitely recommend this film to others . . . but maybe to stop the movie five minutes before it ended. Because, seriously? Narrator Older Ben is a BIG problem for me.
Release your inner child. Don’t settle for anything. Live.
(And, if you’re sickly, try to sneak in a kiss with the Stanley Cup. That seems to help.)