Land Ho! may be a shameless advertisement for Iceland’s tourism industry, but it’s actually a good movie. How is this possible? By its very nature, this film should be bad, and we should be outraged by the idea of having to pay to watch a 95-minute advertisement. Yet I find myself writing a positive review for Land Ho! Why? Because of its two stars: Earl Lynn Nelson, a man who has little experience in acting, and Paul Eenhoorn, an Australian-born local actor who is a nominee for the 2014 Stranger Genius Award in film. Nelson plays Mitch, and Eenhoorn plays Colin; both actors are oldish, both are relatively unknown on the national stage, and both manage to pull an incredible-looking rabbit out of a very unremarkable hat. The rabbit is their performance, and the hat is the plot.
The film opens in what appears to be a rural home. The place is empty and peaceful. A moment later, Colin and Mitch are sitting in a room talking about life. Colin is dealing with the death of his wife; Mitch is dealing with a divorce. (Colin’s dead wife is the sister of Mitch’s ex-wife.) Concluding that sitting around and thinking about the past and its losses is getting them nowhere, Mitch (whose personality is on the loud side) tells Colin (whose personality is on the quiet side) that now is a good time for a trip to the cold country of Iceland. Mitch offers to pay for the tickets and the stay (he is a retired doctor with lots of extra cash on his hands), and Colin (a former bank manager) reluctantly accepts the offer.
Once in Iceland, the Americans do all of the usual touristy things: visit restaurants with exotic menus, hit the nightlife, drive an SUV across the barren landscape, take pictures of water geysers, meet colorful locals, and so on. Against this completely generic background—the advertisement for Iceland—something unexpected unfolds: Mitch, a man in his early 70s and an unrepentant pot smoker, continually ruptures the surface of middle-class values and tastes with bawdy outbursts and remarks. These outbursts are not the kind you would ever hear on a mainstream TV ad. Mitch is the real deal: a dirty old man. And he lets young women he meets at clubs or restaurants or in the hotel know that he is the real deal: a dirty old man. As for Colin, his job is not so much to keep Mitch in check or to apologize to young women for his bad behavior, but to see in this boorish personality a way out of his sorrow, his rut, his profound pain. The more filthy Mitch becomes, the more Colin comes out of the past and enters a present that’s open to the future, to renewal. In this dynamic, we find the film’s originality.
Colin and Mitch are not the ordinary odd couple. They only fight once, and it’s over nothing; they generally get along. And so the movie is not about Colin being the quiet type, or Mitch being the loud type, or how Iceland is such a great place for American tourists. It’s about how the vulgar disruptions of a dirty old man can be useful and even necessary in certain situations. In most situations, they are not, but during this trip across a stark and sometimes desolate country, they are.