See You in Valhalla review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
We are gathered here to lay rest to the awkward family reunion comedy. It tired to live on throughout the years as a subgenre just barely in the limelight, but its time has come. If an all-star cast couldn’t make it work in This is Where I Leave You Now, what hope did this little indie comedy have? It was fighting an uphill battle in the way it wanted to be dark, strange and heartwarming with a dysfunctional family. Actually, that may not be accurate. I’m not so sure the film had any fight in it the way it struggled to be relevant for a scenario on life support. See You In Valhalla did not aim to be offensively bleak or overly sentimental, but just sort of sat in the corner of an average comedy - too safe and innocuous for its own good - waiting out the remaining days of exhausted humor. This film did not shine or amaze in its setup of a death in the family that brings this ensemble together. Perhaps it didn’t want to, deciding to go out quietly.
Johanna (Sarah Hyland) returns to her hometown to meet with her crazy batch of relatives after being away for four years for the funeral of her brother. Her dad’s home turns into a madhouse of the expected quirky siblings. There is her gay brother Barry, a psychiatrist who has fallen in love with his patient who requires some more rehab. There is the responsible brother Don who is now a father to a Republican daughter. We all know that the daughter will bicker and squabble with the gay couple about marriage equality. It was preordained from the setup and will be done as destined in the unwritten book of movie cliches. Don’s wife is a hippie nurse who will, of course, yak about organic food and aligning your auras. We should not expect anything more from this subgenre. It is worn and slow in its old age - struggling to maintain face with its low budget. We need not be so demanding of our elders.
The sappy and the silly are placed in their proper order. Barry’s partner Makewi takes shrooms and becomes consumed building an arc from some wood he stole from a construction site. Johanna laments her old flame having a kid when she gave her own child away years ago. Cut back to Don’s daughter getting into a comically heated debate with Barry about homosexuality, then whip back to the father of the house demanding his children and grandchildren respect each other. Johanna, attempting to be the glue of the family unit, reads up on Maxwell’s life and comes across plenty of viking musings that led to his death at the hands of a meth dealer. Is it even a spoiler at this point to mention that the family eventually bonds over giving Maxwell a traditional viking funeral?
The only character who strays from the predictable is Makewi just for how weird he appears. While everyone else goes through the motions, Makewi believes he is being willed by a divine spirit commanding him to form the boat that will lead to the viking funeral. He is not just being willed by a spirit, but by the audience. We are pleading for something different and original out of this subgenre and Makewi does his best to be different. His methodology and outlook on the events is so out there that it begs for more exposure. Why did this film feel the need to stay on the beaten path, dabbling in parenthood and drinking at the bar? The antics of a man consumed by divine will in his eccentric state of drug use hold our interest far more than anyone else. If not for a broken husk of an ensemble comedy, Makewi would take center stage.
But let us not dwell on the lesser moments of the family reunion comedy in the twilight years and instead remember it for the golden times. The Royal Tenenbaums gave us much to admire both from its snappy writing and stylish photography. But now it is time for the comedy subgenre to move on to a better place - somewhere where it will be more fondly remembered than looked down on for still existing. We can only hope that it has moved on and does not linger around in the near future as any attempt at revival will only disappoint. Let the final nail labeled See You In Valhalla seal the coffin of awkward family comedies.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust - something better come along, it must.