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Sundance 2021: 'One for the Road', and Maybe a Couple for the Film, Too

Updated: Mar 7, 2022

Nattawut Poonpiriya’s 4 years late follow-up to Bad Genius screams “epic” potential. A classic road trip set-up, a stacked cast (the return of the extraordinary Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying, even if for a brief role), and Wong Kar Wai producing: what could go wrong? Well, it seems a whole lot. Not the surface level kind of “whole lot,” where the editing errors and weak writing give the film a mediocre look and feel. No, it appears the error here was that Poonpiriya accidentally shot two films instead of one, and just decided later that he did not have the time nor the means to go through the process of distributing a road-trip film and its possible prequel.

As scathing and impatient as that first paragraph sounds, I want to emphasize that I do not loathe this movie. In fact, I entirely understand why many audiences will find it entrancing, charismatic, and deliciously rife with melodrama. It recaptures the moody lighting and impeccable music track of any Wong Kar Wai movie, with a little bit of classic Poonpiriya montage for flavor. It has those revelatory moments of flashback that cause you to take a deep breath and think back to yourself to fully connect the dots. And it has the perfect balance of bromance and romance to keep the audience captivated by any number of arcs at a time.

Alas, it is all of these classic “charmers” that the film so prides itself on that leads it to overindulge. Too much of a good thing isn’t good at all. Modesty is the best policy. Or is it honesty? Hell, that works too, in this movie’s case. It could’ve saved us a trip.

Right off the bat, the movie falls into a classic trapping: an overenthusiastic opening credits sequence. A familiar jazzy tune and a frenetic drink-mixing, woman-seducing montage set in NYC for the lady killer named, I hope ironically, Boss. Then, a quick move into a telephone booth; Boss’s friend Aood is calling him: he has cancer. Boss has to go back to Thailand and take Aood on a cross-country road trip to return something to his ex(es). A very rapid progression, but simple enough, right?

Unfortunately, this lack of context is its downfall. As films often do when they operate out of chronological order (no hate to Greta Gerwig’s Little Woman, as I believe that to have been an exceptional editing choice), it falls victim to a de-meaninging. I made that term up, but allow me to elaborate: when a movie shows us the history of a relationship before it fully allows us to get to know the characters as they are presently, we are caught unawares as to how they have grown. They become static, as the information relayed to us later in flashback (usually to maintain suspense), replaces any sort of nuance we are to uncover ourselves by way of the current on-screen dynamic. The fact that the flashbacks are going practically in reverse doubles down on the fact that their characters are just a series of plot points waiting to be unraveled. I was not sold on the friendship for that reason, and consequently, I found it very difficult to connect with the film as a whole.

Moreover, as I mentioned, the film has two obvious halves. (SPOILER ALERT) At first I assumed each ex would be its own act, and we would focus on Boss learning about how to be selfless and responsible by caring for his friend while he grows ever weaker. But as time went on and Boss still sucked (pardon my informality, this was the only word I could think of to capture his essence), I began to understand that there was “something deeper at play.” Even if you were anticipating this kind of switch-up, I doubt it would please you to learn that what it came down to was an issue of borrowed money from Boss’s rich mom who, for whatever reason, he had to call his sister after she remarried. What happened to the whole “friend having cancer” thing? I don’t know. The friend was just a pawn all along. Even as romantic and sugar-sweet as the ending may appear at the end of a 136 minute movie (comparably long to other Sundance films I saw, all which clocked in at 98 minutes tops), there’s no way to shake the feeling that the ending only belongs to the second half of the movie.

I truly wish One for the Road was able to swallow me in its melodrama, but even Elton John’s Tiny Dancer and a seamless transition from a cassette gear to a round-about did not evoke my commiseration. Too much back and forth makes for something tragically hollow. We may have to wait another four years for Poonpiriya to leave us spellbound.



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