Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

On the road again

Apart from whatever other charms it may (or may not) have held for viewers, the Robin Williams early pre-summer holiday (smirk) vehicle, RV, was one of the latest examples of Hollywood trying to deal with the American socio-cultural divide. Okay, maybe “deal with” is giving that movie a bit too much credit. Maybe, given the film’s road theme, a better term would be “get mileage out of.” Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Now, movies have been getting comedic mileage out of the culture clash between urban sophisticates and their rural countrymen since the very beginning. That kind of humor goes back to (and then pre-dates) the time when Claudette Colbert married Fred MacMurray, who brought her to live on a chicken farm on Bainbridge Island in Washington state, and she found herself rubbing shoulders with Ma and Pat Kettle. (Incidentally, Claudette and the Kettles wouldn’t know Bainbridge now.)

In RV, the Munros are the type of family who like their high-tech gadgets, hardly spend time talking to one another, and normally look down their noses at the sort of people who spend their vacations driving the USA’s roads in recreational vehicles and camper vans. But they end up taking just that sort of vacation anyway because, in standard “family comedy” logic, it easier for Dad to arrange the kind of vacation that nobody wants than it is to just tell them that he will lose his job if he doesn’t postpone their planned Hawaiian holiday so he can attend a business meeting. While on the road, the Munros meet up with the Gornicke family, who are their very antithesis. The Gornickes actually live fulltime in their RV, they home-school their three kids, they like country music and are liable to break out into a family song at any moment, and they say things like, “Do you wanna hear about the time Jesus saved us from a tornado?” And they are very, very friendly. Needless to say, the Munros spend much of the movie doing everything they can to avoid the Gornickes and, thanks to a plot device, the Gornickes spend an equal amount of time trying to catch up with them.

The Gornickes are something of a variation on Randy Quaid’s family in the National Lampoon vacation comedies. Quaid’s cousin Eddie was similarly an unwelcome pest to Chevy Chase’s Griswold family, parking his well-worn motor home smack-dab in front of their house while they are attempting to entertain a huge number of relatives at Christmastime. Shirttail relatives that people look down on are a surefire source of comedy, since everybody pretty much, well, has shirttail relatives that they look down on. This gambit was used last year in Cameron Crowe’s underappreciated Elizabethtown, in which the enviably pretty Orlando Bloom left the west coast for Kentucky, where he was overwhelmed by a horde of small-town relatives, including wannabe country-rock-playing cousin Jessie, who insisted that the two of them were virtual twins.

As such, these movies are pretty standard fare in the city-folk-meet-rubes tradition of comedy. Now there are, of course, variations on this theme. In a reversal of the usual plotline in last year’s big screen version of The Dukes of Hazzard, our country good ol’ boys went to the city and got a dose of culture shock when they ventured into the big city. In another variation, urban people’s fears of country people have been fodder for more than a few films, many in the horror genre. This includes everything from Deliverance to Wrong Turn, in which backwoods, off-the-beaten-path types can and do have everything on their minds, from non-consensual sodomy to ravenous cannibalism. In RV, Robin Williams acknowledges this cinematic heritage when he quips, upon meeting Jeff Daniels, “Whenever a big white man picks up a banjo, my cheeks tighten.”

A more recent variation on the theme has been the incorporation of the U.S. culture wars into the story. RV does this somewhat subtly by the Gornickes’ mentions of home schooling and Jesus. Although politics is never overtly discussed in the movie, we can fairly well surmise what political parties the Munros and the Gornickes probably vote for, respectively. Or can we? Everyone in this movie is basically a caricature, but in typical, insincere Hollywood fashion, the Munros come to realize that the sociable Gornickes have actually achieved the family togetherness that the Munros wish they had but have been too self-absorbed to work at. In the final reel, they can all agree that families are important and most big corporations are bad.

Jack Nicholson similarly had his world view adjusted, but from the other direction, in 2002’s About Schmidt. In that flick, he too went down the country’s highways (again) in an RV, which seems to have replaced the motorcycle (as seen in 1969’s Easy Rider, which also featured Nicholson) as the vehicle of choice for journeys in search of America. While not exactly a hick, Nicholson’s character was a “middle American,” whose mind was apparently stultified by years of living in the Midwest and working at a boring job in a boring company. On his journey, he runs into free-spirited Kathy Bates and her hot tub and nearly does something spontaneous. More subtle and more sincere than RV, About Schmidt suggests that it is city folk who have something valuable to teach people from flyover country.

In last Christmas’s comedy The Family Stone, Sarah Jessica Parker wasn’t from the country, but she was from a different world than the titular brood of her boyfriend, with whom she comes to spend the holidays. This was actually a reversal of the formula of the city people finding themselves among strange country folk. In this case, it was the conservative finding herself among strange liberal folk. But it took a while for the audience to realize this, since the movie seemed to be following another tried-and-true formula: the old person-with-a-stick-up-their-derriere-gets-their-comeupance-or-(alternatively)-learns-to-lighten-up story. Unexpectedly, no one really gets a comeuppance is this flick, although everyone involved seems to learn something about understanding people different than themselves and what’s really important in life.

Thankfully, none of them sets off in an RV.

-S.L., 22 June 2006

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