One of the precious few movies that Wong Kar-wai has produced for another filmmaker in the last 20 years (though unsurprisingly, not the first to concern a handsome bartender who can’t escape the throbbing hangover of his greatest heartbreak), Nattawut “Baz” Poonpiriya’s “One for the Road” is a syrupy glob of romantic melodrama that has as much in common with the likes of “The Bucket List” and “Elizabethtown” as it does with the lovelorn poetry of “2046” or “Chungking Express.” Despite his art-house cachet, Wong’s producing credits have always tended to fall on the commercial side of the fence.
Anyone familiar with Poonpiriya’s “Bad Genius” won’t be surprised to find that the director’s follow-up fizzes with the same pop sensibility that made his high-school heist thriller the most internationally successful Thai film ever, and afforded him this chance to make something more personal. To his credit, it does feel personal, even (or perhaps especially) as it speeds over a few potholes of forced schmaltz. For all of the feeling in this broadly enjoyable journey, “One for the Road” is most effective for its simple pleasures — smooth needle drops, nostalgia-saturated cinematography, and tear-jerking reveals engineered with the precision of a luxury sedan — but it often stalls out when it tries to switch gears and steer through rougher emotional terrain.
“One for the Road” is not in a hurry to get where it’s going with a 138-minute runtime, but Poonpiriya kicks things off with a flurry of shots that feel like the cinematic equivalent of pre-gaming for a long night. The time-hopping, trans-Pacific saga begins in present-day Manhattan, where hunky Thai ex-pat Boss (Tor Thanapob) works as a high-end mixologist at the swanky bar he opened with someone else’s money. The music is jazzy, the women are plentiful, and the camera is attached to the edge of Boss’ cocktail shaker to make it appear that the whole world is moving in sync with him. But a phone call in the middle of the night unmoors him: It’s Boss’ old friend Aood (Ice Natara), and he’s dying of the same leukemia that killed his radio DJ father. Would Boss mind closing the bar for a month and flying back to Thailand to help Aood “return some stuff” before he dies?
“One for the Road” is a few minutes old when its peevish hero is in the air; by the time the strange friction we sense between Boss and Aood is disentangled, the film will only have a few minutes left. There’s a palpable distance between them — more serrated than polite — and yet Boss still agrees to drop everything and fly halfway across the planet without asking why. He finds Aood bald, sickly, and even skinnier than he remembers, and Boss learns that Aood wants to go on a road trip to make things right with an ex-girlfriend while he still can. And when Aood said “ex-girlfriend,” what he really meant was “ex-girlfriends.”
Strap in for a bumpy and episodic ride that swerves between past and present as Boss chauffeurs his ailing pal from one old love to another, and from soapy drama to slapstick comedy depending on how things went south. Soundtracked by cassette tapes of Aood’s late father’s radio show (a Cameron Crowe-approved mix of classic rock with a few tantalizing snippets of local favorites), these breezy scenes allow Poonpiriya to get a lot of mileage out of his penchant for glossy pop cinema. One particularly fun encounter finds Boss interrupting a movie shoot so Aood can make amends with the lead actress (a rising starlet costumed in a wedding dress), and the punchline delivers a rare belly laugh in a film more interested in earning a few wistful smiles.
These self-contained episodes contribute to an accumulating sense of closure: Aood deletes each ex from his phone when he’s done with them. “One for the Road” thrives in those sepia-toned moments when a person realizes they’re probably seeing someone for the last time, and in the feeling of peace (or panic) that can linger in their wake. These characters might travel over pavement, but their story is carried by the current of water flowing under a bridge.
It’s easy to let it wash over you when Poonpiriya’s film surrenders to that kind of emotional abstraction, soaks up Phaklao Jiraungkoonkun’s lush and sun-dappled cinematography, and settles into the question of whether Aood is healing old wounds or pouring salt in them. This sensual mode also allows Poonpiriya to celebrate the influence of its producer, basking in metaphors of romance and the romance of metaphors. (The director indulges in a little step-print seduction when Wong’s credit appears on screen, a cute homage that also anticipates the superficial ways that Poonpiriya borrows from the master’s bag of tricks.)
Some things that “One for the Road” puts together decidedly don’t work, specifically Aood’s present and Boss’ past. The film’s final 45 minutes jump back in time and shine new light on their shared history, but each new detail is less believable than the last. The bittersweet payoff at the end of the road is satisfying enough to stir up some basic emotion, but it’s also more soapy than sensitive. There’s more plot here than the film can accommodate, and while time may be on Boss’ side (as the song goes, over and over again), “One for the Road” runs out of gas before it’s finished with him.
“One for the Road” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution,