Monday, May 01, 2006


Not that I think it's likely that he gives a damn, but I feel sort of bad for Robin Williams. The reviews for "RV" have been appropriately dismissive, but nearly all of them make reference to all of the other less-than-wonderful "family" movies Williams has made. Yes, fine, the man WAS the king of treacly family-friendly pablum several years back, but let's have a LITTLE acknowledgement of all the interesting, offbeat work he's done in dramas like "One Hour Photo" and "Final Cut" in between then and now.

But to the movie-at-hand. Williams plays the mandatory well-meaning-but-buffoonish upscale suburban dad with eyes on a Hawaiin vacation with the family. Said family is, per the genre, largely imperfect, the au-courant twist being to blame the family non-togetherness on Wireless Age detachment. The teenaged daughter recoils from the attentions of the father who used to be her hero, while the pre-teen son grouses about his height and seems to have accepted Vin Diesel as his personal savior, and BOTH vanish-in-plain-sight into the cocoon of earbud headphones: It's "them kids're growin' up TOO fast": The iPod Edition.

And so comes the story: Dad is a put-upon advertising executive with a creepy, germophobic boss to please and a young turk gunning for his job. So when boss-man orders dad to postpone Hawaii (planned as the only chance for family togetherness before the kids take off for camp and college-prep) to attend an important McGuffin... I mean meeting... in Colorado, he hatches the kind of desperate plan people only hatch in these movies: He pulls a massive, rented mobile-home up in front of the house and announces to the fam that they're going on a Colorado camping trip instead.

The rest you already know. Anyone who's seen ONE family-vacation movie can plot the bulk of the film easily: The titular vehicle WILL prove to malfunction in amusing ways. Campgrounds and trailer parks WILL come stocked with ultra-colorful supporting characters. A second family of "full-time" vacationers, captained by Jeff Daniels, WILL be caricatured middle-American oddballs. There WILL be extended jokes about septic-tanks, ornery raccoons and unfriendly weather. The looming threat of "the meeting" WILL only come up when it advances the plot and, certainly, the 3rd act WILL primarily involve bigger and bigger chases, pratfalls and stunts on Williams' part.

The "family vacation" movie has been around as long as family vacations, but the genre reached it's high water mark in "National Lampoon's Vacation," which every entry since has more or less tried to follow. The difference is, what set "Vacation" apart was it's lack of mercy: It set Chevy Chase off on an honest-to-goodness vaction from HELL, an unrelentingly cynical exercise in bad-to-worse situations made hysterical by it's lead character's unflappable delusions of old-school American Family good times. The country-cousins REALLY ARE annoying as hell, infidelity REALLY IS tempting, Wally World REALLY IS closed, the old lady and the dog REALLY DO die.

There's one point where the film seems to arrive at a moment of twisted, self-acknowledging genius that would be transcendant if it didn't seem so likely it's occured totally by accident: As the film laboriously set's up it's obligatory scene of scatological slapstick involving the attempt to empty a septic tank, a crowd of beer'd-up yahoos gathers to watch the "show." The film lingers on this group, dolled-up like "Deliverance" extras, and it dawns on me: The film is inviting an audience of moviegoers who've eagerly lined up to watch a "poop joke" to laugh derisively AT THE IDEA OF AN AUDIENCE EAGERLY LINING UP TO WATCH A "POOP JOKE"! I was reminded of "A.I." when, right around the time that audiences might've been wondering where the "action" was in their Steven Spielberg robot movie, the film dives into a harrowing sequence where friendly mechanical-people are tortured to "death" to he delight of an explicitly "redneck" crowd who cheer on the mindless destruction Nascar-style... except I think Spielberg did that on purpose.

"RV" is not a "bad" movie. It's funny, not too long, and achieves what it sets out to achieve. Most of the laughs are genuinely earned, and the innevitable "family reconnects" scenes feel more organic than is typical of the genre. Incredibly, at the expected moment where "the truth comes out" and the family attacks Dad for lying to them, he doesn't immediately concede and repent his workaholic ways... instead, he does what an actual PERSON might do: He throws it back at them, reminding them that it's his hard work that provides jewelry, fancy clothes, cars, MP3 players and hopes of attending Stanford.

You've already seen this movie before you've seen it, so trust you're gut on this one: If you like the version of "RV" immediately conjured in your mind after seeing the trailer (or even the poster,) then you're going to like the actual movie. If not, you won't. That's really the bottom line on this one.


Footnote: Memo to comedy screenwriters: EVERYONE is already sick to death of trendy jokes about characters not being able to get a WiFi, cellular or Blackberry connection. Yes, we all know it's an amusing fact of 21st Century living right now, but IN A MOVIE long scenes of people holding little devices up in the air waiting for the "right beep" IS NEVER, EVER, EVER FUNNY.