Road Trip Movies Part Three: Against the Odd

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 6:30am

The phrase “according to plan” rarely rings true on road trips. Wrong routes, mis-advertised lodgings and lousy decisions made by everyone involved are the only guarantees. If you’re comfortable with misadventures and everything going amiss, you’ll do fine; expecting smooth sailing is a bad idea. Boring, planned-out memories should be avoided like cheap souvenirs. It’s the off-kilter anecdotes that will grab the attention of your grandchildren.

Here are some movies about those kinds of trips:

The Muppet Movie [1979]

(A singing, banjo-playing frog travels to Hollywood to pursue his dreams.)

The first and best movie entry by Jim Henson’s Muppets (“The Great Muppet Caper” and “The Muppets Take Manhattan” tie for second), “The Muppet Movie” is a wondrous prequel to all their later misadventures. Opening with Kermit the Frog playing a banjo and singing “The Rainbow Connection” in the middle of a swamp that can only be described as an alternative universe to the milieu in “Deliverance.” We’re invited into a worldview so sincere and friendly that a talking frog represents all the purity of the world. But even in the remote marsh outland of who-knows-where, a Hollywood agent (played by Dom DeLuise) is able to talk Kermit into going to California not to make millions, but to make millions of people happy.

We watch the introduction of every major muppet through Kermit’s cross-country trip. Fozzie the Bear is found, expectedly, telling bad jokes at a dive bar; the incomparable Miss Piggy is met for the first time with all the romantic grandeur of “Gone with the Wind.” It also features villains who, at the least, want a piece of the traveling show; at the worst, they want Kermit to be the spokesfrog of a frog-leg-serving restaurant chain. And the cameos: Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn, Mel Brooks, Elliott Gould and Richard Pryor make pitch-perfect appearances. One for the lovers, the dreamers, and me and you.

Blues Brothers [1980]

(Petty-crook musicians must raise $5,000 to save their hometown orphanage.)

Sister Mary Stigmata is on the ropes. The honest little orphanage she runs is facing closure due to outstanding property taxes, and there’s no hope in sight. Enter Jake and Elwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, respectively), the all-nonsense rhythm and blues combo professionally known as The Blues Brothers. Never not clad in sunglasses, rumpled suits and Trilbys, the Blues Brothers take on Sister Mary’s plight as a now-legendary Mission of God. And so starts a reunion trip that lands the two in flophouses, dingy saloons, and in constant trouble with the law.

Belushi and Ackroyd’s cartoonish antics make the goofy, transparent plot work — they make a lot more enemies than friends over the movie’s course. The musical numbers (featuring legends like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin) are bombastic, cinematic sucker punches, as are the dozens of car-chases throughout this over-the-top caper. A perennial favorite for midnight screenings and singalongs.

Dumb & Dumber [1994]

(Two jobless idiots go cross country to return a suitcase to a woman.)

An idiotic odyssey of epic proportions, “Dumb & Dumber” is still the finest example of total slapstick farce that somehow remains funny years later. Goofy unemployed duo Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) and Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels) embark on a terribly-planned journey from Providence, Rhode Island, to Aspen, Colorado, in hopes of delivering a briefcase to the beautiful but troubled Mary Swanson (Lauren Holly), who’s name sounds like an 8th grader’s perpetual crush. Lloyd, ever the dreamer, is totally in love with Mary, who by all accounts forgot that he even exists. What she does remember is that the briefcase she misplaced contains the ransom money needed to save her kidnapped husband. The ransom collectors are on the prowl and following Lloyd and Harry’s every move.

The Farrelly Brothers and their brand of off-color comedy started here. While they’ve had many successes since, none can compare to D&D. If you’re gonna play dumb, go all the way: Carrey and Daniels are relentless in their will to be so incredibly over the top, so stupid, and it works.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles [1987]

(An uppity executive and lowly salesman take every mode of transportation to reach Chicago in time for Thanksgiving.)

I could only make sense of reviewing “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” John Hughes’ greatest achievement, the greatest road trip movie of them all (and so much more), by doing it last.

Unlike lesser road trip movies that supply their (tasteless) jokes as tchotchkes gathered in the wake of bad decisions (“The Hangover,” “Harold & Kumar,” “Road Trip”), here we have real people in difficult moral situations: two businessman — two sides of the same coin — pool together their limited resources to finagle a trip back home for Thanksgiving dinner with their families. It doesn’t go particularly well, until it does.

Out of frustration and desperation, cutting remarks are made and egos are bruised. It would be too easy to think busy exec Neal Page (Steve Martin) is simply into shouting mean-spirited outbursts at the overbearing Del Griffith (John Candy). Neal was brought to this point by sheer accident. He lives a cozy lifestyle and knows it, and it acts as a catalyst for his snarkiness, a way of focusing on bad luck until it turns his head into a raging hot teapot of temper. Del, by comparison, gives off steam and reflects optimism, which gets Neal more enraged. Their back and forths are among the funniest, truest and most touching in movie history.

They both try to escape their need for each other in wildly different ways, only to end up realizing that nobody understands you more than the person who’s shared your bad luck. You become family in that fleeting moment.