More and more, it seems that films “based on a true story” rely heavily on the verb “based” and less on the adjective “true” when re-telling an often tragic life for the screen. Just a couple years after the wildly romantic “bearumentary,” Grizzly Man along comes another misguided venture into the extraordinarily beautiful setting of remote Alaska. This time, the bear has to settle for a late-inning cameo, while the agonist/protagonist, Christopher McCandless (played with heroic bravado by Emile Hirsch) abandons his family, friends and cash as soon as he’s graduated from Emory University.
This road trip to inner self must, necessarily, be largely invented (Sean Penn, who also directs, wrote the screenplay based on Jon Krakauer’s book). Unlike Timothy Treadwell’s prolific home-movie footage, Chris (reborn as Alexander Supertramp) takes few images of any kind during his two-year trek into oblivion. The few thoughts carefully written by the left-hander are confined to lists (notably flora that’s fit for human consumption) and a last-gasp “Eureka!” that “Happiness is only real when shared.”
The family he’s left in complete incommunicado has weathered the perils of father/wife abuse (William Hurt fails to convince in his few scenes; Marcia Gay Harden shines in her stoicism but comes across as far too bright to put up with her pathetic spouse) and money as the solution to everything. It’s left to sister/daughter Carine (Jena Malone) to serve as narrator and apologist for the sibling she so desperately loved even though he couldn’t find it in his heart to send a hint as to his health or location.
Along the wayward route, Chris—almost Christ-like amongst his instant disciples—manages to reunite an on-the-rocks hippie couple (Catherine Keener & Brian Dierker), paddle the mighty Colorado River in and out of Mexico, learn to drive a combine (Wayne Westerberg’s country-savvy portrayal by Vince Vaughan is a delight even as his past takes him out of the picture), ride the rails (then pay the price for freeloading on the oh-so-conveniently-open freight cars), and, finally—in the fast-becoming-the-place-to-be-seen, Salton Sea (cross-reference below)—rescue an aging pensioner (Hal Holbrook adds class, but can’t overcome the lines he’s forced to speak/endure—particularly in Chris’ “Sermon on the Mount”) from the twin demons of loneliness and despair.
Told through a series of flashbacks, the “Great Alaska Adventure” begins well and shows Chris to be resourceful (hunting and fishing), lucky (a metaphorically rich, abandoned bus-to-nowhere becomes his digs) and foolish (the trickle of water he crosses during winter turns into a raging, impassable torrent in spring).
Thank goodness for Eric Gautier’s miracle of cinematography that floods the screen with spectacular moments of pristine beauty and long shots (notably Chris floating down the river, baptismal-bare with arms spread—another biblical reinforcement) and also for the tracks from Michael Brook, Kaki King and Eddie Vedder, keeping the ear engaged whenever the pace begins to sag.
But, here’s the thing. The largely made-up situations fail to dig into the soul of the troubled young man. His brilliant smile, lack of any vice (even turning down a nubile romp) and always being there for his new—if briefly known—friends, combine to paint a superficial portrait that doesn’t make us care. He’s another selfish being who runs away from everything only to unwittingly succeed far beyond his overriding desire to be truly alone. Apparently, even the wealth of his parents couldn’t find a detective agency up to the task of retrieving their lost son. Appropriately, the twice-featured book (there are no coincidences in set dressing) in the California commune’s neighbourhood yard sale, Crime and Punishment, provides more verisimilitude than was ever intended.