Road trip movies are only as good as the people making the trip. Who wants to be cooped up for a couple of hours with characters you don’t want to spend even a few minutes with?
This, at any rate, is what I kept reminding myself while I was watching “Boundaries,” a road movie starring Christopher Plummer and Vera Farmiga, two actors I am willing to see in just about anything. Because of them, “Boundaries,” which might have been cooked up by a screenwriting program called RoadMovie, is halfway tolerable. But it’s another one of those films, like “Book Club,” in which the cast far outshines the material.
Farmiga plays Laura Jaconi, a single mom in Seattle with abandonment issues. Her wayward father, Jack (Plummer), has never been a positive force in her life, although he is constantly reaching out to her for favors. Most recently, he is being kicked out of his assisted living facility for growing marijuana on the premises. He wants Laura to take him in. The trade-off is that he is offering to pay for an expensive private school for her unruly son, Henry (Lewis MacDougall), who draws unflattering nude drawings of his teachers and is way too smarty-pants for his own good.
A compromise is reached: Laura, accompanied by her son, will take her father to live with her sister, JoJo (Kristen Schaal), in Los Angeles. And because Jack claims he can’t bear to part with his Rolls-Royce, the decision is made to drive down to L.A. from Seattle rather than fly.
This itinerary should come as no surprise. Road trip movies usually have to devise some convenient explanation for why the travelers don’t simply hop a plane. In “Rain Man,” you may recall, Dustin Hoffman’s character has a morbid fear of flying. The explanation in “Boundaries” makes more sense when it is revealed early on that Jack is a marijuana dealer and the trunk of his Rolls, unbeknown to Laura (though not, before long, to Henry), is loaded with a lucrative stash. Jack insists on making a series of detours to visit old friends (played by Christopher Lloyd and Peter Fonda), but those friends are also clients.
Cute quirkiness, courtesy of writer-
director Shana Feste, is the order of the day. Laura’s big thing, for example, is collecting stray cats and dogs. Her house in Seattle is overrun with them and, on the road, so is the Rolls. You get the message: She’s a stray rescuing other strays. And Henry’s drawings, which look to be rather disturbing, are treated as preadolescent goofs. Jack, of course, is a lovable trickster, although it’s a bit of a stretch, even by this film’s ultra-whimsical standards, to imagine that a man in his mid-80s would still be pushing marijuana.
Farmiga somehow manages to inject some real-world pathos into her dysfunctional cartoon of a character, especially in a sequence involving her ex-husband, a Sausalito crumbum played with appropriate oiliness by Bobby Cannavale. But Plummer is amazing. Jack may be jaunty, but Plummer locates the man’s frostbitten heart. You can see why Laura would both fear him and be drawn to him, if only to reclaim another stray.
Plummer, at 88, is surely one of the most productive actors at that age in the history of film or theater. He finds his way into the dramatic center of almost every movie he’s in, even if, as in the case of “All the Money in the World,” in which he played John Paul Getty, he has a supporting role. In his long career stretching back to the 1950s, he has rarely been in a movie with a role that was worthy of him.
The two best, perhaps, are “Beginners,” in which he played a gay father and won the Oscar for best supporting actor, and “The Last Station,” in which he played Leo Tolstoy opposite Helen Mirren and they were both at their peak. I’ve seen him on Broadway as Cyrano de Bergerac and John Barrymore but will always regret missing him as King Lear or as Iago in “Othello.” It’s a cultural loss of the first order that no one thought to film those performances. If you don’t check out “Boundaries,” the cultural loss will not, to put it mildly, be comparable, but one should not pass up Plummer in anything. Grade: B- (Rated R for drug material, language, some sexual references, and nude sketches.)