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Sundance 2021: One for the Road Review

Some people go crashing through life like a wrecking ball. These careless forces plow through what’s in front of them with no concern, and they show little remorse for the destruction they leave in their wake.

But no one is an island unto themselves. How we live our lives affects those around us, even if we’re unwilling or unable to register the impact.

Director Nattawut Poonpiriya’s (Bad Genius) wistful melodrama, One for the Road, follows two men suddenly forced to consider the relationships they’ve forged (and obliterated) throughout their young lives. At 30, Boss (Tor Thanapob) lives like a modern-day Hugh Hefner. He owns a hip New York City bar where he seduces a new woman each night. He may not turn a profit, but he’s living the playboy dream.

Boss’s best bud Aood (Ice Natara), isn’t as lucky. Doctors diagnosed him with cancer, and he knows his days are numbered. Aood plays the dying friend card and forces Boss to fly back to Thailand for one final road trip. Their mission: to make amends with Aood’s ex-girlfriends so that he passes on from this life with a clear conscience. But there’s one catch; Aood secretly plots to fix things in Boss’s life too.

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Courtesy of Sundance Institute

One for the Road has an episodic structure, with each ex-girlfriend visitation offering a contained story. And then the final 45-minutes switches things up and flashes back in time to focus on Boss. The flashback feels unnecessary and draws out a story that could have wrapped up a half an hour sooner. Making matters worse, Boss’s flashback recontextualizes the men’s relationship and makes the plot feel less and less believable. One for the Road starts off as an earnest tear-jerker but by the end, feels like it was constructed in a lab to trigger our tear ducts.

Wong Kar-wai produced One for the Road, and you can see his influence all over the movie. It looks and sounds like a million bucks. Even though most of the story takes place in the present day, shots have a warm nostalgic vibe, as though each scene unfolds in someone’s faded memory of the past.

Cinematographer Phaklao Jiraungkoonkun’s flashy photography never skips a chance to capture the actors under bold fluorescent lights. And Poonpiriya peppers the film with vintage tunes that would fit right in on a Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack.

One for the Road is all over the map tone-wise. It features moments of broad comedy, a preening homage to John Woo, and of course, a dumptruck-sized load of melodrama. That’s not to say this isn’t a serious story; just know that this 136-minute picture covers a lot of ground building up to its Kool-Aid sweet conclusion.

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Thanapob and Natara have fine chemistry — essential for any road trip movie. Their two performances carry the film with ease, regardless of whether they’re going for laughs or yanking on heartstrings. My main issue with the film is the character Prim (Violette Wautier).

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Courtesy of Sundance Institute

I’m not knocking Wautier’s performance — the cast is excellent across the board. My problem is with the way Poonpiriya and the writers crafted the role. Prim doesn’t behave like a three-dimensional character. She feels like one more entry in a long list of women written into movies to help a male protagonist grow up or realize a dream. Her lack of agency puts her into Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory.

Prim refers to Boss as the love of her life even though the movie gives no reason why she falls for a younger, inexperienced guy who lacks confidence. I don’t get how such a sentimental film could place so little thought into a major love interest. I can’t reveal more without getting into spoilers, so I’ll say Prim is more of a plot point than a soulmate.

Poonpiriya puts together three-fifths of a solid movie. The film looks great, features charismatic performances, and tells an affecting tale. But the last 45-minutes spoils much of the goodwill the director earns as the story resorts to blatant emotional manipulation.

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This thoughtful and earnest buddy movie comes with some caveats. One for the Road takes the audience on a satisfying journey, with a few too many bumps and detours along the way.

Sundance 2021 runs from January 28th until February 3rd. Click here for more Sundance coverage.

 

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