By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
The open road, a set of wheels and a dream. In the grand mythology of America, they’re the holy trinity, the blueprints for a modern pilgrimage: the road trip.
As a concept, the road trip has been romanticized in this country to the point where it’s become a rite of passage, and popular culture has only extended the roadway.
Putting a couple of people in a car and setting them off on a long-distance journey of both body and mind is a proven formula.
“She’s in Portland” doesn’t alter that formula in any meaningful way, but it does execute on it with style. Director Marc Carlini brings vision to an otherwise rote story of two 30-something college buddies traveling the Pacific Coast Highway in search of “the one that got away.” Unfortunately, despite quality filmmaking and great performances across the board, “She’s in Portland” is ultimately held back by a dat ed, straight-faced masculinity and lackluster writing for almost every single one of its many female characters.
Wes (Tommy Dewey), a charismatic banker facing down 40, feels trapped in his life. At first glance, it’s not clear why Wes is so unhappy. He has a cushy corporate job and a beautiful, caring wife (Minka Kelly playing Wes’ high school sweetheart, Sarah, in a thankless role) back home in suburbia. But Wes is suffocating; he’s lost his spark and is looking to rediscover it.
Wes and Sarah end up attending a high school reunion where they bump into Maggie, a former classmate. She asks about Luke (Francois Arnaud), Wes’ best friend in high school and college who moved out to L.A. and has, frustratingly, been ducking Wes’ calls. It turns out Maggie is the “one who got away” for Luke and she’s living life as a painter/bartender in Portland.
While Wes has been falling down the suburban rabbit hole, Luke has been struggling to scrape by as a music video editor in La La Land. Dispirited and lonely, Luke is on the verge of giving up his dream and returning to Virginia to work for his dad’s waste management business.
Luckily, Wes takes it upon himself to play matchmaker. He extends his business trip on the West Coast and convinces Luke to road trip with him up to Portland to find Maggie.
From the start, Wes and Luke banter like old friends. They clearly admire each other’s lives: Wes wants the freedom he believes Luke still has, while Luke thinks the stability of marriage and family is a defense against feeling lost.
Dewey and Arnaud have an easy chemistry and bounce off each other well. Dewey brings the the smooth-talking charm, and Arnaud brings the brooding, soulful edge.
The relationship between Wes and Luke is Carlini’s biggest asset. The bond between these two men, who are both struggling to say the things they want and need, is the engine that continues to drive the film forward.
“She’s in Portland” plays out as a series of episodic adventures, as Wes and Luke make their way from L.A. to Portland. They encounter new people, mostly women, who help them discover more about themselves and expand their views on love and life. They party with a pair of free-spirited college girls in SoCal, they share dinner with a divorcé and her friend and stay at a dimly lit Oregon hotel right out of a Lynchian roadside dreamscape.
Every scene remains engaging, largely due to some awe-inspiring cinematography and excellent work from the cast. Joelle Carter is a standout as Rebecca, a recent divorcé who provides some necessary perspective on Luke’s overly-practical view of relationships. The dinner conversation between Wes, Luke and Rebecca is the film at its best, as Carter muses on the balance between practicality and mythology that’s necessary in every relationship.
However, with the exception of Rebecca, “She’s in Portland” fails its many female characters, making them into either objects of sexual desire or symbolic life lessons for the film’s male characters. It’s a problem that hounds the film throughout its runtime and remains a disappointment, especially considering the talented cast.
Carlini had a clear vision with “She’s in Portland.” His skill as a director and is clear: Carlini effectively captures the majesty of the Pacific Coast Highway and draws some great performances out of his actors.
But that vision, inspired by some of Carlini’s own personal experiences and constructed around an unflinching masculine perspective, is also problematic. An otherwise enjoyable ride is often marred by writing that fails to give its female characters the same amount of inner life as its two male leads.
“She’s in Portland” is like a poorly planned road trip: The views are gorgeous, but it’s a real bumpy ride.