Ride the Eagle is a slight, breezy affair that succeeds on the strength of its comedic charm and slick pacing.
If you had another chance with the one who got away, how would you do it differently? That’s the question Leif, a struggling musician, dog dad, and general layabout, must contend with in the wake of his mother’s death. Written by and starring New Girl’s Jake Johnson and helmed by that show’s producing director, Trent O’Donnell, Ride the Eagle is a heartfelt film that asks big questions in a gentle, unassuming way. The film opens with Leif, who lives in a tiny home in a friend’s backyard with his black lab Nora, getting the news that his long-estranged mother, Honey (Susan Sarandon), has died. He’ll inherit her picturesque Yosemite cabin only if he completes a rambling, somewhat nonsensical list of tasks, meant to teach him the life lessons she wasn’t there to impart. As one can imagine, this list, as conveyed through grainy home video, is vague enough to be plumbed for comedic gold — “be the predator, not the prey,” one task admonishes, as Leif struggles to catch a fish barehanded — and heartfelt enough to allow for moments of genuine emotional release.
Ride the Eagle was created in the early stages of the pandemic, when the world was shut down and the vaccine still months away. Johnson has said that, against this backdrop of fear and isolation, the film is ultimately about “what happens when you’ve missed an opportunity to be with somebody you should have been with, and…those moments you want are now too late.” Accordingly, then, much of the movie’s middle section concerns Leif’s relationship with Audrey (The Good Place’s D’Arcy Carden), an ex-girlfriend he calls out of the blue to fulfill the task of apologizing to the one who got away. Carden and Johnson have the sort of unflappable, lived-in chemistry that most movie couples (much less exes) dream about, and their sarcastic, affectionate banter is the highlight in a film where the lead is relegated to mostly acting alongside a dog.
Of course, the other person who got away is Honey, and these tasks are her way of acknowledging and making amends for her less-than-ideal run at motherhood. Leif, for his part, is also at fault: having rejected an overture at reconciliation, he actively prolonged their estrangement until it was too late. These regrets swirl around the movie but never drag it down thanks to O’Donnell’s brisk pacing, the patter of his and Johnson’s extended-sitcom script, and the comedic chops of everyone involved, including JK Simmons as Carl, Honey’s neighbor and boyfriend. As with similar family-oriented comedies like Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, lessons are learned, memories are made, and reluctant families are created (albeit, in this case, posthumously). With the world reopening and post-pandemic escapism flying high, Ride the Eagle breezily rises to the top as a goofy morsel of wholesome fluff.