Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Road Trip

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

ROAD TRIP

6/10

US 2000
dir. Todd Phillips
scr. Phillips, Scot Armstrong
cin. Mark Irwin
stars Breckin Meyer, Seann William Scott, Tom Green, D.J. Qualls
91 minutes

Road Trip is a comedy, and I laughed. Not all the way through, and never to gut-busting proportions, but enough. This is a breezily, unpretentious, genially upbeat movie, with a few little unexpected touches and delights along the way. These are welcome, but they also suggest that, with perhaps just one more rewrite of the script, and just a little bit of a wilder approach by the director, Road Trip could well have added up to a whole lot more.

Director Phillips was responsible for the well-received Frat House documentary, and his first fictional film is a compendium of numerous campus urban myths, built around the central tale of a student who inadvertently sends his longtime girlfriend a videotape of himself having sex with another girl, and who must then set off in hot pursuit before the package arrives: the whole film is, in fact, structured as a (tall) tale, told to prospective University of Ithaca students by tour guide alumnus Barry (Green), to whom we keep returning as the action unfolds. The central characters are familiar enough college-movie types: there’s the Jock (Meyer as Josh, the errant boyfriend), the Brain (Paulo Costanzo as Rubin), the Stud (Scott as E.L.) and the Geek (Qualls as Kyle). Meyer is lumbered with carrying the plot, and initially his main function is as straight man to wisecracking Scott – but as the film progresses our focus shifts again, this time onto Qualls, who only gets to go on the road trip because it’s his car the lads decide to ride in.

Seann William Scott in Road TripD.J. Qualls turns out to be a) nothing like the rapper his name may lead you to expect, and b) Road Trip‘s real trump card. He’s a disarmingly unlikely screen presence, skinny to the point of emaciation and with an terrifically expressive gnomish face: a kind of benign, elongated Crispin Glover. It’s intended as a compliment when I say that you’d be forgiven for thinking he’d wandered in off the set of a nearby John Waters production. One could hardly imagine two more contrasting young performers than pin-up Scott (who’d honed his smart-alec routine in Final Destination and American Pie) and runtish Qualls, but both are totally keyed into the material and deserve much credit for the film’s watchability.

While Scott gets most of the script’s funny lines, he share the laughs with thoroughly spaced-out Scott, who features in many of the visual set-pieces around which Phillips builds his film: just as in American Pie there was the ‘pie scene’ and the ‘flute scene’, and in There’s Something About Mary we had the ‘dog scene’ and the ‘zip scene,’ Road Trip serves up the ‘snake scene’ and the ‘French Toast scene,’ not to mention the ‘milking scene’ and the ‘boner scene,’ and the less you know about these in advance, the better. But while these are funny and satisfyingly ‘gross,’ they aren’t anything new or groundbreaking. The toast scene, for example, is just a variation on a trick Kevin Smith included in his underrated Mallrats (Ethan Suplee appears in both films) and that came out years ago.

There are only a couple of moments when Phillips briefly breaks through to another level. There’s a car leap across a stream that’s as breathtaking as anything in Gone In Sixty Seconds, but which has a ‘real world’ payoff that’s arguably the funniest and most unexpected bit in the whole movie. The second ‘breakthrough’ moment is to do with the film’s narrative design: as Green recounts one particular episode featuring Josh’s girlfriend at college in Austin, we see her in the girl’s changing rooms, surrounded by her friends – most of whom are topless, and notably well-endowed. One of Green’s audience breaks into the story to query whether girls really do go around semi-undressed in such situations, and the narrator huffily responds to the effect that this is his story, and he’ll tell it how he likes. This casts the whole of the rest of the film in an intriguing new light – preposterous developments and exaggerations are thus laid at Barry’s door, not the writer-director’s – but Todd Phillips frustratingly doesn’t develop it any further.

In a similar vein, there are many loose ends that just never go anywhere. Much is made of the fact that E.L. ‘borrows’ a blind-school bus, but there’s no payoff. The film’ odd structure switches distractingly between Josh and the boys on the road (to whom rather less happens than you’d expect), Barry in Ithaca, Tiffany in Austin, and Josh’s new squeeze Beth who, due to a plot contrivance, follows his trail to Boston, then Austin. Most damaging of all, Road Trip really loses its way in its final fifteen minutes when it should instead be coming together with a mighty bang. Kyle is the only character given much of a back story – he’s been browbeaten by his father all his life, and, emboldened by his adventures on the road, finally has the nerve to face up to Dad (Fred Ward). But Phillips muffs this crucial confrontation by having it happen among the chaos resulting from Josh’s interception of the video tape at Austin University. At which point the movie skitters and skids to an abrupt halt, with Barry providing a what-happened-next summary for each of the main characters.

It’s all wrapped up a bit too neat – rather like Phillips’s whole approach. If ever a movie genre cried out for rough treatment, it’s the campus comedy. But instead Road Trip has a commercial smoothness to its visuals, a blanded-out glossiness that runs in direct contrast to the unpredictable antics on screen – even Kevin Smith’s two-dimensional “no-look” look would have been more suitable. I just wish he’d had the nerve to follow Kyle’s example, and really let himself go. Then again, Phillips’ approach paid big dividends at the US box office, where the film was a surprise summer smash – and I suppose any critic’s comments on this kind of film are hot air, anyway.

by Neil Young