Almost everything that you need to know about “Youth in Oregon” can be gleaned from its colossally stupid title. Playing on “euthanasia” in the context of the first United State in which physician-assisted suicide was made legal, Joel David Moore’s morbid dramedy is the kind of movie that will stop at nothing to find the warmth and wistfulness from inside an otherwise unpalatable premise.
Essentially “Little Miss Sunshine” with a death wish, the film stars Frank Langella as Raymond Engersol, an 80-year-old grump who’s just about ready to check out. Two years removed from a heart attack that resulted in an agonizing bout of cardiac surgery, Ray is no longer fit to live on his own — instead, he and his wife Estelle (Mary Kay Place) have become semi-permanent boarders in the guest room of their daughter’s (Christina Applegate) suburban New York house. Nobody is particularly happy with this arrangement: Ray feels like he’s a burden on both of the most important women in his life,
Ray, a no-nonsense son of a bitch who’s less of a character than he is a stand-in for an entire generation of cranky old men, feels like he’s become a burden on both of the most important women in his life. It’s an open secret that Brian (Billy Crudup), Ray’s antsy son-in-law, couldn’t agree more. Upon learning that he’ll die unless he undergoes another surgery — a prognosis that he decides to keep secret — Ray declares that he’s hired a driver to take him across the country so that he can end his life. This being a quirky indie movie about death, he naturally makes the announcement in the middle of his birthday dinner at a swanky restaurant (in one of the film’s few genuinely hilarious touches, his teen granddaughter’s braindead boyfriend sits across the table, wishing he had picked any other night to suck up to her family). And this being America, where life is theoretically sacrosanct above all things, nobody takes him seriously. “I want to die,” he declares. “Can you pass the bread?” His wife replies.
Eventually, as the family threatens to disintegrate from the stress, Brian volunteers to drive Ray out west, with Estelle keeping them company from the backseat. Cue a 3,000-mile road trip filled with wacky comic contrivances (Brian and Estelle get high on prescription uppers), convenient detours that adhere only to the internal logic of a clumsy screenplay (e.g. an aviary visit that answers Ray’s interest in bird calls), and a Sufjan Stevens song about grief (natch). “Youth in Oregon” is so familiar that it’s easy to forget how few movies tackle assisted suicide, let alone with such candor and clarity.
Assisted suicide, when considered as an ethical question rather than a metaphysical one, is a matter of weighing what people want for themselves against what others want for them (or need of them). “Youth in Oregon” takes the scenic route and gets a dozen flat tires along the way, but neither Moore’s flat direction nor screenwriter Andrew Eisen’s penchant for racking up a new subplot each time his characters enter a new time zone can stop it from ultimately reaching its wise and empathetic conclusion.
Eisen’s script has a flavor of autobiography to it, but its greatest virtue also exposes its fatal flaw. Filtering this story through the eyes of Ray’s son-in-law rather than a member of his immediate family, Eisen inherently wedges some crucial distance between the emotional minefield of euthanasia and the ethics of preserving it as a legal option. It invites viewers to appreciate the fallout that Ray’s situation might have on his loved ones, while also encouraging them to consider his decision from a rational remove.
The film is wise to throw its story back on us, because most of its characters are either blank (Brian’s wife), useless (Brian’s daughter), overkill (Brian’s brother, played by Josh Lucas), or delusional (Brian). Brian repeatedly states his belief that Ray will get cold feet and ask to turn the car around somewhere along the trip, but there’s nothing about the intense octogenarian that suggests he’s capable of having second thoughts or capitulating to his regrets — Brian’s willingness to go along with the “charade” in the hopes that Ray will betray his basic nature is one of the most unconvincing details in a film that’s chock full of them.
But while most of the cast is hobbled by their one-dimensional roles, the perpetually under-appreciated Langella twists his character’s frustrating terseness to his great advantage, delivering one of the great performances of a career that will continue to resonate for long after it’s over. Through him, Ray is frail and ferocious in equal measure, a lion of a man who would rather end his life than wound his pride. While “Youth in Oregon” is painfully careful not to pick sides and make this into an issue film, the steady conviction of Langella’s performance is nevertheless a resounding vote for the value of individual agency (as well as a reminder of what a gift that can be once someone reaches a certain age).
While broadly evolved on its central issue, “Youth in Oregon” isn’t dramatically satisfying in the slightest. Viewers would be much better served to stick with the 2011 doc, “How to Die in Oregon,” which could be said to take something of a less cutesy tact.
“Youth in Oregon” premieres this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.