A film review by Craig J. Koban


2009, no MPAA rating, 94 mins.


Joshua Jackson: Ben / Liane Balaban: Samantha / Gord Downie: Biker / Campbell Scott: Narrator

Written and directed by Michael McGowan

This was not supposed to happen.  I am not supposed to like movies like this…like ONE WEEK.  Not at all.   As a matter of fact…I usually loathe them.  

You know what type of films I am talking about: ones about terminally ill people that need to abandon the monotony of their daily existence in order to engage in deep, penetrating, existentialist journey to discover who they are and how they fit into the larger picture.  So, what you need is a mix of a deeply flawed and self-doubting character afflicted with a deadly aliment (i.e. cancer) and then place him/her within the confines of a road film and you kind of get the basic idea.  Along the way, these people – throwing utter caution to the wind (should they not be at home, in a hospital, and seeking treatment as quickly as possible?), end up discovering the subtle beauty of the world and, in turn, develop into a self-actualized person...ready to die, I guess. 

Perhaps the most dubious example of this type of audience clamoring genre is the very recent THE BUCKET LIST, which was one of the more teeth-gratingly odious and dramatically false films I’ve seen in a long while.  That bloated and hooky dramedy had two men (Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson) that both were diagnosed with terminal cancer.  They had very little time to live.  What did they decide to do?  Get more treatment?  Spend the last precious days with their respective wives and families?  Nope.  They decide to go on a reckless road trip that involves skydiving, racing fast cars, staying in fine hotels, and flirting with young women.  Ooooohhh….but wait….they emotionally heal one another through their shared experiences, while scaring the hell out of the exceptionally worried loved ones back home.  What made this film so condescendingly wrongheaded was that it was trying – make that desperately trying – to be a feel good tear jerker.  Instead, it never attained a level above that of a lazy, wretched, obtusely melodramatic, and intellectually degrading clap trap exercise.  By the time the end credits rolled by I found myself not feeling the need to wipe away tears…mostly because my gag reflex was kicking into overdrive. 

Now, at face value, ONE WEEK is a film that has many of the same elements as THE BUCKET LIST: 

1.  A main character that is shocked by a discovery of his terminal illness (cancer). - check.

2.  His initial denial and struggles to deal with the news and to reveal it to his loved ones. - check.

3.  His inevitable desire to cast away his home life and fiancé in order to hit the road, see the world, come to grips with his disease that will most likely mean a death sentence, and, through it all, come to peace with what kind of person he really is and what life means.  - check.

4.  Most importantly, he will overcome the anguish and pain of having cancer through the emotional liberation of his road trip.  - check.

Seeing the ads for the film, I was expecting ONE WEEK to be as wrongfully narrow-minded, flaccidly dramatic, cheaply comedic, and horribly clichéd-ridden THE BUCKET LIST knock-off.  Yet, as the film leisurely went on I found myself losing myself very easily with the film’s tact and subtlety with handling the otherwise paint-by-numbers storyline.  Whereas the characters in THE BUCKET LIST felt like disposable marionettes at the mercy of the film's banal script, the personas in ONE WEEK have a calm-spoken frankness and brevity to them, so much so that when they do share the screen together, these individual moments pack an unexpected emotional honesty and touching sentiment.  Perhaps even better, ONE WEEK kind of thanklessly tells a story within the most basic framework of this disease/relationship/road trip/spiritual journey genre without falling victim to being overbearingly preachy.  Fortunately, we have a frequently poignant and moving film that contains some discrete wisdom as opposed to dishing out ham-invested lessens and audience-insulting messages.   

In the beginning of the film we meet Ben (Joshua Jackson, in one of his finest, most calmly secure performances) as a teacher that is bored senseless with teaching.  In his spare time he is an aspiring novelist, but the chronic rejection he received from publishers from his first manuscript have stilted him away from attempting to write a second.  He is engaged and soon-to-be-married to a beautiful young career woman named Samantha (Liane Balaban), but a part of him feels, deep down inside, that his recent marriage proposal to her may have been more out of a need to pop the question over love…which is not a good sign. 

Things hit rock bottom when he discovers that he has a particular form of cancer with a disastrously low survival rate (in one of the film’s more scathing moments, he is told by his doctor that he is at “level 4” for his form of cancer, and when he asks how many levels there are, the doctor deadpans, “Four”).  His doctor, and his fiancé and family, wish for him to start treatment ASAP (not an altogether selfish or unreasonable request on their part), but Ben has other ideas.  Feeling that he needs “one last adventure” before dying in the confines of a hospital ward and being “radiated up”, he decides to take his recently purchased Norton Commando motorcycle on a cross-Canada trek.  To give his trip distinction, he decides that he will visit all of the world’s “biggest attractions”, which comprise of The Big Nickel, a giant tepee and hockey stick, and the world’s largest photo mosaic.  

Why does he decide to leave his fiancé and go?  Well, he has a spiritual awakening when he looks at his Tim Horton’s coffee cup, unrolls the rim of it, to which it reads “Go west, young man!”  Most “roll up the rim” contests from the business give free donuts and coffee, but this one offers up Zen-like advice.

Aside from seeing sights all across his home and native land, Ben predictably comes across a wide assortment of kindred and somewhat troubled Canuck souls.  Yet, what I appreciated about the film was how it plays up Canadian archetypes, but never devalues them to the point of humorous ridicule.  There is a level of understanding and empathy that ONE WEEK treats all of the people that Ben encounters: He meets a former cancer sufferer (played by a pot smoking Gord Downie, of Canada’s Tragically Hip) who is wise and understanding; a debt-ridden, divorced, and lonely Saskatchewan farmer who only sees her son once a year and has only seen her 4-year-old grandchild once; a couple of Maritime teens that are trying to mountain bike their way across Canada in order to win...a beer bet; and finally a somewhat sobering and tender encounter with a BC hiker (singer/songwriter Emm Gryner), whose rendition of a very famous Canadian folk song moves Ben to great extremes while re-awakening a childhood passion he once thought lost forever.  Other films would have played up these eclectic encounters  to overwrought and silly whimsicality (the easy route would have been to mock these fringe characters), but ONE WEEK treats them with a nice respect and dignity.   

Even more so, ONE WEEK is unapologetically a visual love ballad to all things Canadian….but it does not bombard viewers to the point of ad nauseum.  All of the lush beauty and serene tranquility of the Northern scenery – all set up against the backdrop of a finely collected body of great Canadian alternative music - are effective at revealing Canada’s often undervalued beauty while commenting on Ben’s emotional state.  This is not a flashy and robustly shot film: the cinematography is simplistic and jerky at times, but the lens captures small moments of grandeur (the eye popping allure of a prairie sunset, the expansiveness of Alberta’s mountain ranges, the titanic scale of the west coast ocean view) and all of this makes ONE WEEK breathe with a vitality, giving respect and distinction to a country often overlooked for its natural wonders.

One interesting diversion in ONE WEEK is its use of a voice over commentator (much akin to VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, but less overbearing), provided by a wonderfully detached and laconic Campbell Scott.  Early on, it feels tacked on as it sort of needlessly comments on the obvious, but it becomes kind of sly and subversive as a source of some of the film’s more acerbic laughs.  I especially appreciated some of its more matter-of-fact bits of wisdom, such as a little intimate piece of information about Samantha at one point (she loves Ben so much that she has learned to enjoy watching television golf with him, even tape-delayed seniors events from the Asian tour).  Other moments, like the aftermath of a potentially fatal bike accident on the road, hilariously plays up to the routine conventions of lesser versions of these types of films.  As Ben gets up from off of the highway curb and realizes that he is alive and okay, Scott's v.o. bemoans how this is the point in bad films where the main character jumps up for joy and dances around with an obnoxious and uplifting pop tune blaring in the background.  This does happen in ONE WEEK…but stops when a motorist drives by a looks at the prancing Ben like he were a lunatic. 

Even though ONE WEEK has largely been advertised here in Canada as a 94 minute ode to all things Canadiana (not a bad thing, indeed), I found myself really responding to how well drawn the human relationships are in the film.  One thing that endlessly irritated me about THE BUCKET LIST was how it treated its concerned wife characters like annoyances to their dying husbands: they were rightful to be concerned about their spouses' disease, not to mention logical in their incredulousness over their husbands' decision to leave them to go on a road trip.  The manner these wives were presented as annoyances to the two men’s’ spiritual journey was fairly sickening.  Thankfully, ONE WEEK makes Samantha a women that openly expresses all of the perplexed emotional reactions one would logically have if their terminally ill spouse left them to go on a sight seeing expedition (at one point she wisely tells Ben, “If I were dying, I would stay home, get treatment, and drink goat piss if I thought it would help”).  I liked how the film made her an extremely patient, nurturing, and surprisingly understanding figure, but not one without painful insecurities.  You grow to identify with her in ways THE BUCKET LIST never allowed for its spouse characters: that film treated them as people with shameful self-regard that were impeding their husbands’ happiness on their road trip. 

Ultimately, I think that a film like this only works when it handles its dying character with the right modulation.  Considering that Ben forsakes treatment, leaves his fiancé and family, all to go on a Canada-wide trip of self-discovery, the reasonable response would be to treat this guy like a self-absorbed A-hole.  The other extreme, THE BUCKET CASE extreme, is for the film to go out of its way to make this figure intolerably sympathetic.  I think that ONE WEEK neither makes Ben a sympathetic figure nor a lecherous one, but rather a conflicted and complex man, which allows for his desire for a journey to make a bit more sense.  This is greatly assisted by Jackson, who displays an unexpected range in his layered and immersive performance.  He does not play moments up for broad sentiment or laughs, but rather stays securely grounded throughout most of the film, which is the precise choice.  Overall, he does a great job of capturing Ben’s pensiveness, his understated joy of discovery, and his solemn recklessness, alongside a level of introverted puzzlement about what to do.   When he plays off of Balaban’s concerned and equally befuddled fiancé, the scenes have a tangible tenderness and truth to them; they rarely come across as phony or manufactured. 

The real problem with ONE WEEK is that this film is…well…so systematically steeped in Canadian culture that I think that it will have an incredibly difficult time securing audience members south of the border (only we can relate, for example, to Ben's childlike reverence of kissing the Stanley Cup, the string of pop culture references, and...yes...the coffee empire that is Tim Horton's).  However, for those of us from the Great White North, who clamor and crave for good Canadian films with Canadian content, ONE WEEK is not only a rousing and prideful salute to our nation’s natural pageantry, but it also – perhaps even more successfully – forges a palpable dramatic punch alongside a frequently seditious comic edge (no easy feat for these type of films).  Before I entered the theatre I thought this would be a film ripe for the critical lynchpin; when I left I instead felt that ONE WEEK – even with its more traditional genre trappings – finds itself remarkably level-headed and thoroughly moving.  It balances humor, drama, pathos, and a dark, sarcastic edge better than most examples of the dying man looking for spiritual liberation flick.   

And…even better…it’s not a product of the Hollywood cliché factory.   

Oh, Canada...indeed.

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