The Good: Good cast/generally decent performances
The Bad: Overwritten, Dull plot, Entirely unlikable characters, Generally not funny or clever, Overbearing soundtrack
The Basics: See You In Valhalla tries to be this year's quirky death-related comedy . . . but ends up underwhelming and unfortunately obvious.
Whenever there is a major blockbuster hitting the theaters, I like to check out indie cinema to see what is being set up as the alternatives to the mainstream. With the release of The Avengers: Age Of Ultron (reviewed here!), there are a surprising number of options at the theaters, which makes me think that as Summer Blockbuster Season begins, a number of studios are just dumping the projects they knew never had a chance at the box office. One of the films that is part of the dump of indie films as the big studios launch their big-budget movies is See You In Valhalla.
See You In Valhalla is trying desperately to be this year's This Is Where I Leave You (reviewed here!) and if it were not for the rich cinematic history of dysfunctional family films, it might have had a chance at being relevant. It's actually easy to see how See You In Valhalla got made; the lines are generally well-written. I can imagine that reading the script excited a number of people in the low-budget (not a criticism, just a division of studios/projects) department of a studio. To its credit, Tarnol Group Pictures actually invested in See You In Valhalla, so it has a pretty impressive cast and it looks like a mainstream film (handheld camera work aside), but the story is absolutely unoriginal and surprisingly uninspired.
Magnus Burwood gets high and decides he wants viking death, so he goes out and tries to take out the local meth kingpin with a sword (to avenge the death of his girlfriend) and is killed. That brings Johana Burwood, Barry, and Don - the surviving children of Woody Burwood back to the family's house. Estranged for years, the three adult children of Woody come with baggage and their significant others. Woody is being tended by his flaky, new age nurse, Faye, when Johana and a young man who lives near her, Pete, arrive. Barry and his boyfriend, Makewi (one of his former patients), are already there, but Johanna barely recognizes him because he has lost so much weight. The last to arrive is Don, who comes with his daughter, Ashley, who is almost the same age as Johana and is an overachieving Young Republican.
Being together, the Burwoods realize just how far they have fallen apart. Don lords Barry's homosexuality over him, the family references an abortion Johana had back in high school, and Barry's boyfriend starts randomly building an ark. Johana hunts down her high school boyfriend, Johnny, who she still carries a torch for . . . until she discovers he has a son with another woman she went to high school with. When Don and Barry get into a fight, it sets off a series of events that put the Burwood's at the hospital where they make the decision to give Magnus a proper Viking funeral.
See You In Valhalla is written as a character study of quirky characters and the problems with the film all start there. See You In Valhalla has a troublingly contrived feeling to the characters; they are each disparate types with no chemistry or organic relationships between them. Hell, director Jarret Tarnol managed to cast four people who are supposed to be siblings who share no discernible physical qualities! Unlike something like Peep World (reviewed here!), This Is Where I Leave You or any number of other films with dysfunctional families where the characters come together after prolonged separation, there are no organic relationships within the family. None of the siblings appear to have had alliances, friendship or any knowledge of one another; it was every person for themselves. The reason this fails to work in See You In Valhalla is that the way the characters are written, it is not even clear that they have had shared experiences.
As a result, there is an entirely contrived feeling to See You In Valhalla. Dysfunctional family comes together after the death of one of the family members . . . you know where that happens? The movies. You know where that doesn't happen? In dysfunctional families. Families where everyone is estranged do not suddenly come together just because one of them is no longer there and given how it appears the Burwoods fell apart after the death of the matriarch, there is nothing organic about the way they suddenly drop everything to come together just because Magnus died (this is an especially large leap for Don considering how far he is from all of the other characters in the film and just how much he has going on in his life at the time of Magnus's death).
Pete is an especially overwhelming contrivance in See You In Valhalla. Apparently, Johana is unable to attend the reunion of her family alone, so when Pete imposes on her to come with her, she agrees. By all indications, Pete and Johana are not even dating at the beginning of the film, so his willingness to drop everything (in addition to being economically inexplicable) and Johana's acceptance of his presence makes no rational sense. He's a milquetoast and yet assertive enough to say "I'll come with you" and she's strong-willed about everything except saying no to this seemingly random guy who lives proximate to her?!
The Pete/Johana character problem is exacerbated by the fact that Sarah Hyland (Johana) and Alex Frost (Pete) have absolutely no on-screen chemistry. Like so much of the rest of the film, there is no clear, reasonable, connection between the characters or actors, which makes how their characters interact more troubling than compelling to watch. That said, See You In Valhalla has a decent cast and most of it is used well. Hyland never quite lands the emotional scenes. Her reaction to her character's brother's death and her big emotional confession to Pete are played without conviction or quite the right level of emotion. Drama - expressions of emotional pain - might not be in Hyland's wheelhouse, but her part in See You In Valhalla demands it.
Hyland is surrounded by a very masculine cast and it is somewhat surprising that the Tarnol Brothers bothered with a female protagonist the way they fail to capitalize on her talents (the bland revelation of Johana's big secret feels more expository than confessional). Emma Bell is freakishly spot-on in the role of the flaky nurse, Bret Harrison and Steve Howey have such good on-screen chemistry as Barry and Makewi that it is almost possible to overlook that the characters have no real connection (other than that they are both gay men), and Michael Weston gives such an authoritative performance as Don that there is no hint of the uncertain character he played on Psych in the role. Conor O'Farrell is underused as Woody, but he does well in his scenes.
The thing is, even if we've seen everything in See You In Valhalla before, the problem with the film is that we've seen it all done better than it is here. Director Jarret Tarnol uses a shaky handheld camera during one of the film's most (potentially) emotional scenes and it becomes distracting and annoying. The use of music is similarly loud and distracting and more than contributing to the film it seems to scream: TRANSITION! And the plot is formulaic. We've seen the dysfunctional family come together because they confess to one another all the things that have kept them apart; See You In Valhalla does not do that with any flair, engaging characters or style to make it worth spending the time on.
For other works with Bret Harrison, please check out my reviews of:
V - Season 2
The Loop - Season 1
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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