Dec 25, 2011

Movie Review: One Week

One Week
written and directed by Michael McGowen, 2008

All Rights Reserved © 2011 Thomas W. Day

This is one of the rare movies that will actually make you feel better for having spent the time; none of that bitter aftertaste of a wasted evening from One Week. The Internet Movie Database called One Week an "adventure, drama." Netflix (which currently has One Week on Instant Watch) categorizes the movie as "Indie Dramas, Romantic Dramas." I would have called it a dark comedy. It is, honestly, a lot funnier than the subject implies and a whole lot funnier than about 90% of what gets called "comedy."

The movie asks the main character, Ben Tyler (Joshua Jackson), what he would do when his doctor tells him, "I'm afraid it's not great news." Tyler learns he has terminal cancer with a "survival rate of one in ten" and an undetermined "minimum" lifetime. [Something that is true for any of us all the time.] On his way home from the doctor's office, Tyler meets an old geezer polishing up his 1973 Norton to sell because "my eyes are going, I couldn't get my license renewed."(Move to Minnesota. Anyone can pass our state's eye exam.)

The bike wasn't entirely a spontaneous decision, as "Ben had been circling around the purchase for a while" because his fiancée had told him that "driving a motorcycle represented the height of stupidity." After one of the weirdest haggling scenes in movie history, Ben says, "I'll take it."

Ben's fiancée Samantha (brilliantly played by Liana Balaban) walks a fine balance between loving, overbearing, and wounded. Her hatred of motorcycles, desperate faith in the miracles of modern medicine, and her desire not to be the woman who abandoned her boyfriend when he got cancer all blend into a complicated character you'll either like or hate; or both. My opinion of her swung from one side to the opposite in practically every scene.

Ben decides to postpone his wedding, blow off his mind-deadening grade school teaching job, and obey the instructions on his coffee cup and "go west young man." At a loss for what to do with the end of his life, Ben sets out on a bucket-list trip from Toronto to British Columbia with a minor goal of seeing all the “big things” along the way; big chairs, biggest fake dinosaur, biggest paper clip, etc.

Ben tells Samantha he’ll only be gone two days, but his real plan is to travel without a plan or a schedule. All he knows about his future is that he’s “not ready to be a patient.” Ben doesn't tell his family or employer anything. Just before he takes off on his trip, he and Samantha participate in Ben's father's 70th birthday party where Ben's dad gives thanks for his uneventful life and his good fortune. Ben doesn't ruin the moment with his depressing news.

One of the many things I was reminded of by One Week is how much I love travelling in Canada. The camera work is terrific, the music selected for the movie is innovative and sets a high bar for indie productions, and the sound quality was as good as modern movies get. There is nothing in this production to get between you and the story. In my opinion, it is as flawless a movie as I have ever experienced.

Ben's relationship with the Norton, while exceptionally lucky (based on my experience with British vehicles), is dead on the money. He was almost as perfectly unprepared for this cross-country trip as he was for his medical prognosis. Riding into the Canadian sunset in jeans, a designer leather jacket, and an open face helmet, Ben is soaked, frozen, bathed in warmth and light, and bashed about by the trip and the people he meets. You will be, too.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. Just watched it and absolutely loved it. Don't tell my wife but tomorrow it will be in the 30's and I'm heading west, well actually south west, via bike.

John Wright said...

Tom, while watching the film I couldn’t help but wonder if some of Ben’s route (Hwy. 17?) was the same as your Alaska trip. If so, did you stop at some of the same landmarks? (Especially the “Prairie Camel,” of course).

Watching movies is one of my favorite pastimes, but it’s rare for me to laugh out loud (let alone guffaw) as I did with One Week. Ben’s breakdown in the middle of nowhere (of course) had me in stitches. As you suggest, he obviously wasn’t prepared for the trip. In fact, his mechanical aptitude seemed limited to changing out the spark plugs and that’s no way to tour on and old Brit. bike, or any old iron for that matter. One of the things I believe this unintentionally captured, however, was that Ben didn’t have a “relationship” with the bike. It was transportation to him (albeit the two-wheeled variety), but when you’re really out there on an old classic the bike almost necessarily becomes the principal focus of your attention: “what was that ‘tick’ I felt?”, “are the valves slapping more?”, “that back cylinder feels a bit too hot,” “the power’s falling off, I think I need to enrich the carbs at this elevation.” It becomes a central part of the experience, otherwise there’ll be a lot more time by the side of the road than Ben spent. Some of us like the bike to become a main part of the adventure, others obviously don’t….

I don’t fault the movie for this, but being out there on an old bike is an altogether different adventure, one that the movie didn’t capture. At an absolute minimum, at least one person should have greatly admired the old Norton, rather than simply noticing it as the cancer survivor did. (Otherwise it just doesn’t ring true). In fact, this could have been an additional humorous element of the film: namely, getting so tired of the attention the bike received that Ben would eventually learn to run away from it after parking. This is what I often have to do, having heard about so-and-so’s uncle having a such-and-such, but unfortunately he sold it and blah, blah, blah…. It gets really old.

I think you’re right about the movie being best classified as a “dark comedy.” Being a cancer survivor myself, I of course empathized with Ben and his family’s plight, but there were light-hearted, funny, and uplifting moments throughout the film. Like you, I thought the acting was superb and one of my favorite scenes is when Ben finally comes home and his family is waiting for him on the steps. Their facial expressions are dead-on of all the conflicting emotions loved ones feel in this overwhelming context—such a deep pain, yet fighting to look strong. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve replayed that 30-second segment.

The soundtrack was unfamiliar to me, not having recognized any of the groups or songs, but I agree it was top-notch. It did an outstanding job of capturing the alternating moods of the film.

As ever, your writing is a delight, Tom. Too rarely do I find myself smiling at what I read, so I thank you yet again for your insightful and entertaining prose.


T.W. Day said...


I did cover some of 17, but I was mostly on more remote roads on the way to Alaska. 17 is long, straight and jammed with truck traffic and there are more fun ways to get to the Yukon. However, after seeing One Week, I want to go back and do the trip a different route to see some of the oversized stuff the film highlighted. I love Canada and could spend a couple of years exploring the country.

I didn't have any problem believing that people didn't swarm over the Norton. I saw old bikes all over Ontario, Quebec, and the Northwest and they didn't attract any more attention than my V-Strom. I think it's more a matter of how approachable the rider is than how interesting or odd the bike is. Some of us repel people and some attract. I rarely have any problem finding isolation, even in an MSF class it's not hard for me to go a day without a non-job related conversation. I think Ben's attitude was pretty much similar to my traveling mode.

I suspect you might be underestimating the director, McGowan, and Jackson (Ben). I think they portrayed exactly the guy they wanted to play. The contrast between Ben and the guy he bought the bike from was a pretty good indicator that they knew the difference between Ben and a vintage motorcyclist.

The thing about writing for popular consumption is that machines are no going to be the focal point. "Tucker" was a good case in point. His cars were pretty amazing, but the story was about the man. More scenes than One Week gave us about the bike would have turned the movie into something different. The bike was Ben's transportation into the next part of his life, but it was not his life.

There is a fine line between machines allowing us to become someone we couldn't be without mechanical assistance and becoming a machine hoarder/collector and imagining the machines have personality and character. One side is rational and empowering and the other is mental illness. Hoarding old shit is no improvement upon being a traditional consumer, it's different but no more sane. Ben was going the opposite direction from the kind of bikers we see who hope their shiny new motorcycle will make them a more interesting person. He was just looking for a horse to take him west. A motorcycle was better than a car because he wouldn't have to explain going alone on a motorcycle. I totally empathize with that.

I gotta watch it again.

thanks for the insights, John,