The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


See You in Valhalla

Say, did you hear the one about the troubled person who is forced to return home to the quirky, dysfunctional family they left behind? Of course you have. This plot has fueled countless studio dramedies and independent features. Last year alone, we had at least two of them, This Is Where I Leave You and Hollidaysburg. The formula can be done well, or it can be done lazily. See You in Valhalla, the latest indie picture about how you can't go home again, executes it with laziness.

Modern Family's Sarah Hyland plays Johana Burwood, a young woman who fled her hometown several years ago because of some personal problems. She's forced to return upon learning that her Viking-obsessed brother Magnus (Jake McDorman) has died in a very bizarre manner: he tried, and failed, to attack a meth dealer with a sword. Returning home for the funeral, Johana is reunited with her wacko family. Widower father Woody (Conor O'Farrell) is now dating his much younger hippie nurse, Faye (Emma Bell). Judgmental brother Don (Michael Weston) has trained his tween daughter to act just as snootily as he does. Gay psychologist brother Barry (Brett Harrison) shows up with his patient/boyfriend, an archery-loving stoner dude named Makewi (Steve Howey). Naturally, no one gets along, and Johana's past is dredged back up by the arrival of the ex-boyfriend (Beau Mirchoff) who made her flee in the first place. Only when Makewi suggests that everyone throw Magnus a “decent Viking funeral” (i.e. shooting flaming arrows into a boat containing his dead body) does everyone start to get on the same page.

See You in Valhalla has a terrible case of Screenwriter's Affectation. This is a term I use to describe scripts containing an excess of self-impressed quirkiness that serves no real purpose and goes nowhere. You can almost feel the writers of such screenplays patting themselves on the back for their perceived cleverness. In this case, Brent Tarnol (whose brother Jarret directed) has created a story with zero actual substance, yet an abundance of pointless detail. It starts with the Viking theme that permeates the movie. Why is it here? Magnus dies in the first scene, so there's no development of his obsession. And instead of, say, overdosing on pills, why did he have to kill himself by dressing up like Thor and provoking a drug dealer? The constant Viking references come off as cutesy, as they attempt to cover the fact that some very serious themes (depression, suicide, addiction, abortion) are being handled with all the shallowness of a rain puddle. But hey, the Burwoods are stealing a corpse to set ablaze!

This problem extends to the characters, too. They're all drawn in a single dimension, with everyone given exactly one trait to repeat over and over until the end, at which time they spontaneously learn to be better people. Don ridicules everyone else, Woody pleads forgiveness for his absentee ways, etc. The supporting characters fare even worse. Faye isn't just a hippie, she's the sort of exaggerated flower-power hippie that comes straight out of a bad 1970's sitcom. (Why is she a hippie? What's the point of this? Why can't she just be a young woman dating an older man?) Makewi, meanwhile, is the embodiment of every stoner cliché you can think of. It's a wonder his name isn't Cheech or Chong. Presumably, these two are intended to be “colorful,” but they bear no resemblance to actual human beings, so their presence here comes off, again, as an affectation conjured up by the writer. Broad caricatures are what you use when you don't know how to create identifiable, fully-formed human beings.

None of this is the fault of the performers, who are all very good in woefully underbaked and/or ill-conceived roles. Sarah Hyland, in particular, gives it all she's got. She is a likeable and appealing actress who deserves far better material. Even when the predictable specifics of Johana's troubles are unsurprisingly revealed, Hyland works overtime to lend some sincerity to them.

See You in Valhalla winds its way to a conclusion intended to be heartwarming and touching. Instead, it's just vapid. When we don't even know Magnus, why should we be moved by a modern-day Viking funeral held in his honor? I'm sure Brett Tarnol was very pleased with himself when he came up with this idea. Audience members will doubtlessly wish for a more authentic look at complicated family ties.

( 1/2 out of four)

See You in Valhalla is rated R for language, sexual references and drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 22 minutes.

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