Road Movies: Part 1

Mon, 03/31/2014 - 1:44pm

There are exactly three versions of the cinematic road trip: the in-flight travelogue towards a final destination, the escape from circumstances beyond control, and the race against considerable odds. Certain titles have elements from each one, and all titles have some combination of the three road trip character archetypes: comedic duos who can’t help themselves, bickering families and friends that learn to live with each other’s faults, arch-rivals that find their dynamic irreplaceable by the film’s end. In all road trip movies the central conflict is inherent: there’s a place to go and several ways to get there.

In this first entry of a three-part series, we’ll focus on the in-flight travelogues, movies that spend as much time on the road as they do making impromptu pit stops on their cross-country journey.

Paper Moon (1973)

From Hays, KS to St. Joseph, MO (approx. 277 miles; 4 hrs. 10 mins.)

The long, bare stretches of prairieland between Depression-era Kansas and Missouri provide the backdrop for “Paper Moon,” director Peter Bogdanovich’s classic of the road movie genre, and perhaps his most beloved movie overall. Starring Ryan O’Neil and his real-life daughter Tatum, the film follows Moses Pray (Ryan), a Bible-selling con man who, after attending a funeral of a former girlfriend, is asked to take temporary custody of the deceased woman’s tomboyish daughter Addie Loggins (Tatum) and escort her to relatives in St. Joseph, Missouri. While on the road, Addie shows a knack for con-artistry and becomes part of Moses Pray’s traveling sales-act, hoodwinking widowers and earning extra cash along the way to “St. Jo.” Tatum’s sly, impish wit earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at the age of 10, making her the youngest ever recipient of an Academy Award in any category, but don’t forget Madeline Kahn as the unforgettable Trixie Delight.

National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)

From Chicago, IL to Los Angeles, CA (approx. 2,015 miles; 29 hrs.)

“National Lampoon’s Vacation” marks the genesis of the Griswold family, an All-American troupe of suburban family values helmed by one Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase), All-American dad. In this first “Vacation” outing, Clark packs up his wife (Beverly D’Angelo) and kids for a cross-country trip from Chicago’s ‘burbs to Wally World, a family-friendly amusement park in Los Angeles, Calif. As now expected from the Griswold’s patriarch, things go awfully wrong during their week-long expedition. Our determined, dimple-chinned Pied Piper marches his family through the thresholds of hell, all in the name of family bonding, or as my mother calls it, “spending quality time.” It’s the American dream!

Rain Man (1988)

From Cincinnati, OH to Los Angeles, CA (approx. 2,200 miles; 32 hrs.)

Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) is a young self-motivated salesman in L.A. who believes an affluent lifestyle is owed to him after his estranged father’s death. But upon his arrival back east, Charlie finds his “fair share” squandered, or rather, bestowed to an older brother that he never knew existed. Raymond (Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman) is Charlie’s brother; he’s autistic and has been institutionalized for years. Willing to use his brother’s condition for his own personal gain, Charlie removes Raymond from the institution and drives from Cincinnati back to L.A. to work out a settlement with his lawyers.

At first, Charlie finds Raymond’s hang-ups to be exasperating but, like any good road movie, a healthy dose of hotels and highway miles eventually forms an inseparable bond between the brothers. While it may not be the most true-to-life depiction of autism, “Rain Man” does successfully showcase the patience and understanding required to bond with differences, abilities and disabilities beyond our knowledge.

Almost Famous (2001)

From San Diego, CA to New York, NY (approx. 2,800 miles; 42 hrs.)

Lester Bangs, Stillwater, Penny Lane, the cover of Rolling Stone — “Almost Famous” captures the rough-and-tumble romance of a rock n’ roll band on tour better than any movie in recent memory. A semi-autobiographical tale by director Cameron Crowe, it tells the story of William Miller (Patrick Fugit), the most sincere and unassuming 15-year-old journalist in the world. Through the mind-boggling excess and expectations of the early 70s rock scene, William gets tutored by legendary crank/critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman in his most memorable role) and thrown into a whirlpool of sex, drugs, promises, put-downs and pick-ups. And great music from that most vital of decades.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

From Albuquerque, NM to Redondo Beach, CA (approx. 805 miles; 12 hrs.)

A story about a dysfunctional family and a beat-up Volkswagen van that could, “Little Miss Sunshine” has all the tropes of the genre with the most distinctive characters this side of “Arrested Development.” It’s a “stardust fantasy,” to borrow a phrase from the film, that revolves around seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) and her dedication to enter and win a beauty pageant. Shaped like a bumblebee and with energy to spare, she’s not your typical pageant type. Then again, her family isn’t typical, either.

We have Olive’s grandfather Edwin (Oscar winner Alan Arkin), a crass drug abuser who helps fine tune her stage act; her older brother Dwayne, brooding within his self-imposed vow of silence; her nerve-wracked mother Sheryl (Toni Colette) who’s doing all she can to stay afloat, and her father Richard, a failing dreamer determined to sell his life-coaching abilities to the highest bidder. Add Olive’s suicidal gay uncle Frank (Steve Carell) and you have an unreliable van chock-full of mental cases heading to the most reviled competitive event in the United States: the child beauty pageant. It’s a stardust fantasy indeed.

Tune in next time when I cover the road trips of fugitives, runaways and paranoid schizophrenics!