A film review by Craig J. Koban
2009, no MPAA rating, 94 mins.
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?
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
better…it’s not a product of the Hollywood cliché factory.