By Jerry Tallmer

 © Photo by Lois Siegel

Jerry Tallmer
New York City journalist and critic
 One of founders of “ The Village  Voice”
 Created the Obie Awards (Off-Broadway Theatre) in 1956

Jordan Roberts and Christopher Walken sat side-by-side in front of a screen in the Loew’s  at 19th Street and Broadway where a startlingly good new film called "Around the Bend" had just been shown to a preview audience.

Roberts had written and directed it, Walken plays the figure in the center of it - a suddenly reappearing bad father - and now director and actor were fielding questions about how it was made, but every so often the Q&A broke off as the whole theater shook for 20  or 30  seconds with a huge underground roaring.

Finally, after this had happened, at intervals, four or five times, Roberts lost his cool. "What is  that?" he exclaimed. Walken gave him - and the people in the seats -- a cryptic Christopher Walken smile. "Welcome to New York," he said to Roberts. "That’s the subway." Then, to the audience:  "He’s from California. Out there they hear that, they think it’s an earthquake."

What gave the tiny jesting admonition a little extra twist is that in  playing Turner Lair, the bad father of "Around the Bend," Walken is -- superbly, sharply, hauntingly -- bringing back from the grave certain asocial elements of Jordan Roberts’s own real father. Which is just the way Roberts the real-life son wrote it.

Christopher Walken

"Around the Bend" is as refreshingly anti-Hollywood, and as hard not to keep thinking about, as a slap in the face.

Actually it’s about three generations of fathers-and-sons:  a quirky archaeologist grandfather in his 60s or 70s (Michael Caine, brilliant of course); that man’s enigmatic long-missing 50-ish son (Walken); his  preoccupied, scarred-by-abusive-dad 30-ish son (Josh Lucas); and that son’s curiosity-driven. irresistible 6-year-old (the extraordinary Jonah Bobo, native of Roosevelt Island, NYC, 6 years old at the time of shooting, 7 years old now).


     Josh Lucas and Jonah Bobo

It’s the grandfather who sets everything in motion by dying and leaving behind a will of scraps and pieces of paper and crumpled Kentucky Fried Chicken paper bags that add up to a sort of inverse treasure hunt of where to scatter his ashes. The movie then becomes a road movie, with Walken, Lucas, and young Bobo in a battered van pursuing clues all across the parched, landscape of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Twenty-four hours after that 19th Street preview and Walken’s crack about Californians, amiable, curly-haired Jordan Roberts - who prefers not to reveal his years "in this ridiculously ageist culture," but it can’t be so very many - said  he wasn’t as non a New Yorker as all that.

"I met my wife here in New York 15 years ago," Roberts said. "We were Off-Broadway actors. You know, I don’t think they used to build movie theaters over subways. I thought maybe it was a sound effect for some movie next door."

Yes, the Walken character, Turner Lair, is based in some important respects on the writer/director’s own father. "I don’t want to say his name. I haven’t done that yet."


Christopher Walken

Did he in fact knock you around?

"Mmm-hmm. Definitely. Physical violence against my brother and myself."

He said the father left wife and two sons when Jordan was 3, and after that "would be around for a while and then disappear. He was kind of a con man and a filmmaker - a disastrously unsuccessful filmmaker who would raise money by shooting somebody else’s film in a week so he could make his own film . . . "

Sort of an Orson Welles?

"No - but not dissimilar. He was slightly more successful dealing drugs to the rock-’n’-roll bands with which he traveled."

Roberts started writing this script eight years ago - or, rather, started it as a play in which the absent father shows up to see his daughter in Central America.

"My brother died of a heroin overdose 20 years ago. My father died a little under two years ago. Shortly before he died he seemed to be trying to make a connection. When he died I rewrote the film once again. That’s why I credit him as Off-planet Producer.

"So I rewrote it, and people started saying Yes. Mark Gill, the president of Warner Independent Pictures, loved the script and put up the money. We went into production within six months of my father’s death."

They shot it last winter, in and around Albuquerque. "It was cold."

Doesn’t look cold.

"That was acting!"

Archaeology plays an important part in the movie. "I always knew I wanted the older man [the Michael Caine role] to be an archaeologist. Someone who loves digging up old shit" - a line that screenwriter Roberts put into the mouth of the Christopher Walken character. Of course digging up old shit is what this whole movie is about.

  Michael Caine

He got Walken and Michael Caine simply by sending the script to their agent (they have the same agent). "Walken said Yes right away, then read it over and over again."


At that preview Q&A on 19th Street, Walken, the baker’s son and sometime hoofer from Queens, New York (did you ever see "Pennies From Heaven"?  -- fabulous), said that, unlike many actors, he never does any research. He finds it all somewhere in himself.

Michael Caine’s feeling about "Around the Bend" is conveyed in remarks ascribed to him in the press kit:  "What I look for now, to make my life interesting and because I’ve been acting for a long while, are characters who are as far away from me as possible, and Henry [the grandfather] is that. I like to come out of a different box every time. It not only keeps the audience amused, it keeps me amused. It makes me want to get up in the morning."

You might say that landing Sir Michael was a stroke of luck . . .

"Yes, I should say so."

Josh Lucas, who plays Walken’s son and the 6-year-old’s father, does good work in a somewhat thankless, colorless part. As for Jonah Bobo, the (then) actual 6-year-old, he’s, well, something. "We auditioned maybe 50 kids, and saw a lot more on tape. Jonah’s been reading since he was 2 1/2. He’s a genius. Literally."

The man who said that has a son of his own who’s now 7 and was then 6. "Jonah’s father works in software. His mother is a physical therapist and personal trainer. Wonderful, wonderful people. What makes Jonah so fascinating is that he’s grounded."

Roberts says that his own mother loves "Around the Bend." She is longtime "General Hospital" actress Bobbi Jacobson. His Danish-born wife (echoed in the film by Glenne Headley) is painter, no longer actress, Marianne Larsen.

He has been writing scripts for some years now. "Most of them don’t get made. Also been rewriting other people’s scripts."  Did some uncredited work on "Road to Perdition," that tough-as-nails Paul Newman  picture. "Its script is by David Self, a wonderful writer. I was brought in to add some father-son  elements."

Getting a rep at that, wouldn’t you say?

"Yes, beginning to."

However he’s now a work on a script that links Albert Barnes, progenitor of the incredible and for a long time non-invitational Barnes Collection of modern painting, outside Philadelphia, to novelist James Michener, who, says Jordan Roberts, "was stalked and harassed by Barnes for many years after he’d gained entrance to that museum disguised as a coal miner."

The only daddies in that story are Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Braque, Picasso, Matisse & Co., and their ashes aren’t scattered over Albuquerque. I’d like to see Michael Caine as Cezanne and Christopher Walken as Picasso, wouldn’t you?

AROUND THE BEND.  Written and directed by Jordan Roberts. Rated R. 85 minutes, 2004.                    

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