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Good Road Movies (2000-05):  Hitchin’ a Ride
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Good Road Movies (2000-05): Hitchin’ a Ride

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David Appleford itcherIt happened in 1934. Ever since Claudette Colbert hit the road with Clark Gable, lifted her skirt at the side of a road, flashed some shapely leg and stopped a car, Hollywood has delivered a steady diet of road movies. Frank Capra’s delightfully engaging It Happened One Night sent the two Hollywood headliners on a journey across country together; an adventure that would ultimately end with most of the American male population drooling over a raised skirt, problems with the censors, and five Academy Awards. What more could a movie ask for? ~ David Appleford

Highways and Byways

Since then there have been so many good road films. ‘Easy Rider’ springs to mind, ‘Thelma and Louise’ just behind, and if you’ve never thought of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ as a road movie, think again; it’s one of the best. Of course, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby made a whole big screen career out of bumping into Dorothy Lamour around the world while thumbing rides to Morocco, Zanzibar and Singapore. We won’t talk about ‘Road to Hong Kong’. No one does.

But recently there was Ed Helms in ‘Vacation’. Sadly, my chair was facing the screen so I had to watch it, and as one fellow reviewer pointed out, the film was wretched enough to the point where it may have finally killed the genre. An exaggeration, sure, but it’s a good point, and if I may join in with the chorus of disapproval, even though it killed nothing, it certainly was wretched. 

If you saw ‘Vacation’ and you’re wishing you hadn’t, here’s what you do. Consider the following five road films, ones that were released at the beginning of the new century, and see if they help clear the palate. There’s a couple you may have forgotten. There may even be a couple, like ‘The Wizard of Oz’, that never occurred to you were road movies in the first place. Take a look.

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Curious Road Movie Recommendations

‘Rat Race’ (Jerry Zucker, 2001)

Dad, I’m prairie dogging it!

Let’s not kid ourselves, ‘Rat Race’ is certainly no ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’, the film upon which this most closely resembles, but it does have the same madcap, free-for-all, ensemble styled physical comedy with plenty of surprisingly good sight gags throughout, and it qualifies as a road movie.

In this case, the road is more than five hundred miles long. It starts in Las Vegas and ends in New Mexico. Somewhere in a storage locker there’s a duffel bag containing two million dollars. Six teams of famous names including Whoopi Goldberg, Jon Lovitz, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Rowan Atkinson are to race across states to get to that locker. The first person to arrive wins. It’s that simple.

Good trivia: Actor Vince Vieluf plays a character called Blaine Cody. His agent tried to negotiate top star billing. Other than the fact that most audiences at the time had no clue who Vince Vieluf was, the agent may have tried too hard. In retaliation, not only did the studio remove the actor’s original billing, it left him out of most of the film’s promotion. Vieluf would later fire his agent. Today, audiences remain clueless when it comes to wondering who Vince Vieluf is.

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‘Sideways’ (Alexander Payne, 2004)

Well, the world doesn’t give a shit what I have to say. I’m not necessary. Had. I’m so insignificant I can’t even kill myself.

A road movie based on a novel of the same name, ‘Sideways’ is one of those small movies that appears to ramble for awhile then suddenly hooks you in. Two guys hit the road for one week. For different reasons, they’re making their way from San Diego to Northern California wine country.

Miles (Paul Giamatti) wants a relaxing week of enjoying good food, some good wine and maybe play a little golf. His old college roommate, Jack (Thomas Haden Church) has other plans. He’s about to marry and this road trip is his last chance to stray before commitment. Good food might be on the menu, but Jack is more interested in the waitress serving it.

Part of the fun of ‘Sideways’ is that it’s intelligent, a rare commodity when it comes to recent American comedies and road movies. Both Giamatti and Church are outstanding, but so, too, is the support they get from both Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh as the women they meet along the way. When Madsen’s character talks of her love of wine, the moment is sublime. There’s also a terrific jazz score by Rolfe Kent to sweeten the taste.

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‘Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle’ (Danny Leiner, 2004)

I’m fucking starving! I figured I’d bust you out and we’d go get some burgers.

Really? A Harold and Kumar movie? Why not? They’re on the road, they have the munchies and a White Castle burger beckons; several, actually.

Until the road comedy was released, most had never heard of White Castle. In fact, if you’ve never visited America’s mid-west or you’d never think of buying a box of frozen burgers at the supermarket, the name White Castle probably means nothing. At the risk of giving something a free plug, let me tell you, having lived there for several years, they’re the best, hands down.

The plot of a couple of stoners played by John Cho and Kal Penn who crave a White Castle burger and are willing to drive endless miles across country to get one may sound like a larger than life plot but take my word, it happens all the time. No joke. I knew of a car load of college students in the Carolinas who so craved the taste of a White Castle cheeseburger with onion chips, they drove overnight covering more than two hundred miles to the nearest restaurant. There were sequels, but they fell flat. This is the only one you need.

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‘Broken Flowers’ (Jim Jarmusch, 2005)

Hold on a second. Wait. I know you think that I’m your father, don’t you?

The setup is a good one and it certainly qualifies as a road movie. Bill Murray’s character, Don Johnston, receives an anonymous letter informing him that he has a nineteen year-old son. The letter is from a former girlfriend, but out of all the women he’s previously dated, Don doesn’t know who the author is. So, what does he do? He hits the road and visits the five women who just might have sent the letter.

As this is a Jim Jarmusch film, there’s a certain kind of weirdness to everything that you’ll either embrace or immediately dismiss. Not everyone likes an understated or restrained style in their road comedy, and the deadpan style of ‘Broken Flowers’ is certainly in that corner, but there’s something about watching Bill Murray ponder things as he tries to work out what he’s supposed to do next that always engages. You can’t tell if his mind is a blank or if he’s seriously working something out; the expression is just about the same.

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‘Almost Famous’ (Cameron Crowe, 2000)

Good-looking people don’t have any spine. Their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we’re smarter.

Loosely based on something writer/director Cameron Crowe actually did, ‘Almost Famous’ tells of a fifteen year-old who convinces the editor of Rolling Stone magazine to hire him for an article. Believing that the young journalist is a little older than fifteen, he assigns the boy the task of hitting the road with a band called Stillwater and documenting every event along the way. Yep, it’s a road movie.

The film was probably director Crowe’s best critically received production, and with good reason. It’s funny, well performed, it can boast a terrific performance from Frances McDormand as the mother of the boy who wonders why her child hasn’t been home for dinner for days, plus there’s the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as real life rock journalist and critic, Lester Bangs. The meeting between the boy and Lester is worth the price of rental alone.

Plus, the music’s great. Stillwater is a composite of several bands, but most think of Led Zeppelin. Both Jimmy Page and Robert Plant saw an early cut of the film, liked it, and gave Crowe permission to use a song of theirs on the soundtrack, though the foot was put down on ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

Have a look at this article for a list of movies like ‘Almost Famous’.

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Off the Beaten Track

When you consider that the road movie has its storytelling roots in such classics like Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, no matter how bad ‘Vacation’ was – and we can’t emphasize enough regarding how bad it was – it didn’t and could never kill the genre, though sympathy for that fellow reviewer who couldn’t take anymore is certainly justified.

Other recent releases like ‘Hot Pursuit’ don’t help either, but the truth is, when a story is constructed from what might happen to characters on an epic journey, any journey, the possibilities for humor, conflict and fun are endless. The above mentioned five films prove it.

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