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‘One for the Road’ Review (Sundance): Swoon-worthy drama stumbles under the weight of melodrama down the homestretch

Legendary filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai extends his blessing as producer on this Thai film, and it occasionally comes close to meeting the high standard.
Credit: Courtesy/Sundance Institute

Like a fine cocktail, the most intoxicating sequences in the boozy, woozy, swoony end-of-life dramedy “One for the Road” contain just the right amount of each of those cinematic flavors, or otherwise delivers them in the right order: The heat of reunion, followed by a rush of spiky farce and finally a heavy head-rush of recognition.

But there comes a point where the bartender in question – Thai director Baz Poonpiriya – mixes up his ingredients, and wooziness becomes the dominant sensation in a movie that goes all in on the depths of melodrama that it spends the better part of its first half skillfully circumnavigating. Pitch-perfect needle drops courtesy of Elton John and The Rolling Stones can only get you so far when wading into nostalgic waters, and somewhere soon after the midpoint of “One for the Road” it finds itself suddenly submerged. It’s as if a bucket of ice-cold water awakens Poonpiriya from a semi-hungover slumber of slow jams and low-lit sincerity, only to notice for the first time that none other than master romantic Wong Kar-Wai has blessed his movie with a producer credit and he must overwhelm himself in order to meet the inherent expectations.

The margin that separates this movie’s delights and downfalls is practically as wide as the Pacific, on one side of which we find Aood (Ice Natara) sitting in his parked car on a summer Bangkok night, listening to cassette recordings of his dad’s old radio show queuing up classic American hits. Those taped artifacts are a hint towards Aood’s tight grip on the past, and he’ll soon call to enlist another: An old roomie from half a lifetime and half a world away in New York City, the suave Boss (Tor Thanapob), who promptly returns to his home country of Thailand at Aood’s request after his old friend reveals he’s been diagnosed with cancer.

Far from simply wanting to kick back and reminisce on old times, however, Aood is meeting his mortality with a dash of initiative—he wants to visit his ex-girlfriend a few hours away, ostensibly to return a belonging while sneakily forging closure. And now that Boss is here, won’t he be so kind as to drive his sick friend?

”One for the Road” approaches its heavy material early on with a light touch and a spritzy texture; just try not to get swept up in the jazzy melodies and gorgeously captured Thai mountain ranges and cityscapes. The tone swerves confidently from melancholic to caustic to romantic, and the most potent sign of Wong Kar-Wai’s influence arrives as Aood and his ex rekindle an old spark while drenched in ruby-red lighting. Adding to the drama: He’s mum on his condition, keeping her in the dark by wearing a wig. The sequence is punctuated by another confession from Aood to Boss, delivered with hilariously perfect timing by Natara: They aren’t heading home yet, but going on to see other former lovers.

And so their journey continues, not just on the road through Thailand, but through shared histories of the duo’s friendship in New York City, where Aood and Boss operated a bar that’s now struggling to stay afloat under the latter’s watch. For how satisfying the music and visuals of “One for the Road” are in the first half of its 135-minute runtime, it’s the fluidity of Chonlasit Upanigkit’s editing that anchors our investment as the past is vividly, coherently pieced together in order to better understand the present; vignettes glint and glisten in understated importance like a disco ball. At the same time, the friends are gluing together shattered fragments of memory in order to build some semblance of a final future for Aood, although we’re only teased as to what his preference of ultimate closure may look like.

Meanwhile, you might raise an eyebrow as to the movie’s structure of multiple ex-girlfriend reunions—surely the novelty will run out of gas before long? To the film’s credit, it forecasts as much, and the screenplay (a collaboration between Poonpiriya, Nottapon Boonprakob and Puangsoi Aksornsawang) responds by constantly thinking three steps ahead; a surrealist flourish here and a dash of misdirection there keeps the story’s swagger alive as we breath in the fumes of pure, undeniable pathos. There’s glee in store here, and also some heartbreak.

Credit: Courtesy/Sundance Institute

Indeed, while Boss is clearly the audience proxy for dissecting Aood’s ultimate motivations, it’s Aood who we suspect is the true protagonist in the story; his bartender buddy is merely tagging along, after all, providing sarcastic asides and filling the role of handsome sidekick. But they reverse course when Aood, having accomplished his bucket list, suggests they continue on to Boss’s home town, the coastal city of Pattaya, where his affluent family owns – and, apparently being unbridled creatures of commerce, also lives in – a spectacular hotel.

It’s here where “One for the Road” returns to the past for an extended stay, only now we’re transported back further than ever to before Aood and Boss were buds—and we observe, finally, the story of how Boss came to be where he is, a backstory riding the strands of his own burgeoning romance with another talented bartender, Prim (a lovely Violette Wautier). After two acts of breezily coasting through a film that treats the revisitation of memory as a daring barefoot stroll over burning embers for Aood and his former partners, the film’s delicately woven tapestry of timelines come clumsily undone under the burden of forced sentimentality and needless overcompensation.

The final third of the “One for the Road” could be a successful separate movie in its own right, though its purpose is clear—to recontextualize the friendship between Aood and Boss before a devastating confession. The sheer ambition of what emerges as a kaleidoscopic saga of romance and guilt is almost enough to justify our need for a road map through the narrative thicket, but exhaustion begins to overshadow the intrigue. In a movie that starts out as dreamy as this, the last thing you want to notice is the illusion start to lift. Try as Poonpiriya does to tug it back down with some gorgeously composed final frames, last call was already declared too long ago.

Starring: Tor Thanapob, Ice Natara, Violette Wautier, Aokbab Chutimon

Directed by Baz Poonpiriya

2021

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