“Youth in Oregon” opens by cutting back and forth between 80 year old Ray Engersol (Frank Langella) in a bathroom, shirtless, miserable and in the company of pills, and Ray’s son-in-law, Brian Gleason (Billy Crudup) lying in bed with his wife, Ray’s daughter, Kate (Christina Applegate). Ostensibly this is to show how the former’s presence has put a crimp in the latter’s sex life, but it also goes to show this family’s splintering, where as close as everyone is, with Ray and his wife Estelle (Mary Kay Place) forced to move in with their daughter and son-in-law and granddaughter Annie (Nicola Peltz), they hardly communicate, each person walled off in a separate rom with his/her own secrets as palpable tension forever lingers in the air. Crudup’s performance, faux-polite resentment, his overtures in lockstep with an oily smile, is an embodiment of this tension. His patience is a put-on, nearly every line he speaks angling to see if he can shed extended family responsibility he does not want. That probably makes him sound unlikable, and he is, because most everyone here is. This is an oversized family in too close a proximity for too long crumbling before our eyes. Is it any wonder Ray wants to depart this blue rock?
That’s the inciting incident of “Youth in Oregon”, titular wordplay on euthanasia which Ray decides he wants when he learns the disease he has is inoperable. Not that he’s about to tell his family, of course. It’s one of those kinds of movies, where secrets are stored only so they can come barreling out at the appropriately scripted moment. For all life’s messiness that the opening nimbly entails, much of the rest of the movie is oddly uniform, hinging, as these things often do, on a road trip, one Ray demands cross-country to Oregon where suicide is legal, which is taken without Kate - tending to a delicate if woefully non thought-out subplot involving Annie - and that eventually picks up both Ray’s estranged son Danny (Josh Lucas) and Brian’s estranged son Nick (Alex Shafffer).
Though the road trip is intended to yield enlightenment it hardly comes across illuminating, comprised mostly of recycled hijinks, like sharing a hotel room or a bout of maniacal all-night driving by virtue of pills, the sort of stuff that “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” did not only more comically but more affectingly. Director Joel David Moore favors a soundtrack heavy on Sufjan Stevens-ish indie pop or mournful soundtrack dirges that sound sort of like Sufjan Stevens-ish indie pop which does not sound part and parcel to the journey of an 80 year old curmudgeon. What’s worse, the majestic scenery that David Moore’s camera revels in throughout is no way connected to Ray’s journey or obligatory epiphany; it’s just a bunch of travel postcards.
As far as the touchy subject of euthanasia itself, Brian spends so much time convinced Ray won’t end his life that no philosophical conversation, literal or figurative, emerges. As presented in “Youth in Oregon”, whether in Brian and Kate’s staunch opposition, or Danny and Nick’s just-go-with-it support, euthanasia is drawn strictly in black and white rather than with shades of gray. The closest it gets is a moment near the end when Ray is actually made to witness an old friend being euthanized where Maryann Plunkett, in a deft walk-off performance as the old friend’s daughter, charts the considerable emotional terrain that accompanies such a decision.
In a way, though, this lack of philosophy on matters of life and death does effectively underscore Langella’s shockinly brittle performance. Though you wish the stagnant relationship of Ray and Estelle, brought about by such torturous circumstance, might be more explored, you believe her when she talks of the pain that goes hand-in-hand with having a partner who just wants to die. And while the road trip itself expresses none of the ardor that Ray claims it involves, Langella’s performance conveys that ardor all on its own, less when he throws a fit and more when he is simply still, whether riding in a car or just sitting in a chair, exuding exhaustion, where every one of his eighty years and all the baggage, physical and emotional, are brought haggardly to bear. That exhaustion is so convincing, in fact, that when it comes time for him the inevitable emotional pivot, it barely seems believable.