ROAD TRIP: a post-American Pie comedic artefact (2000 in Film #20)

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This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of May 19th, Todd Phillips’ Road Trip

This week, I’m cheating a little bit, because I’m not talking about the biggest box office hit of the weekend in mid-late May. That honour goes to Disney’s interminably dull Dinosaur, but I’m more interested in Todd Phillips’ Road Trip.

Dinosaur, while boasting a fascinating production history that is far more interesting than the picture itself (Paul Verhoeven was once down to direct it as a live-action, early 90’s mega-blockbuster), the film is about as vanilla Disney as you can imagine, and it romped home at the box office to, by this point in 2000, rake in almost $400 million worldwide. Not quite the haul of the still-dominant Gladiator, but a relatively close second. This is understandable. The competition besides Gladiator, and the incoming Mission Impossible II, was not exactly stellar. Road Trip, the second most successful new film of that weekend, was designed to appeal to a very different crowd.

Being an 18 year old (almost), when Road Trip came out, you can imagine how eager I was to see a film like this. A-Levels were about to come to an end with my final exams in Drama and Media Studies (I had it tough, I know…) and a summer of freedom before University in the autumn beckoned. A film like Road Trip was catnip to my friends and I, despite the fact I attended cinemas regularly myself, more regularly than my compatriots at college. Road Trip was a picture we all went to see and we howled. We were precisely the target audience and we reacted accordingly. Twenty years on, the effect is not the same. The effect wasn’t even the same 13 years on, as I reviewed the film in 2013, and I’m going to turn over to ‘Past Tony’ to lend some thoughts about the film from a distance, and then return to add a modern postscript.

So, 2013-era Tony, does Road Trip hold up down the years? 

The fact Road Trip is close to 15 years old is quite a sobering thought, given I’ve long held a fondness for what is a very traditional modern American frat comedy. Truth be told, there’s not really all that much to elevate Todd Phillips’ movie out of the significant range of films it sits alongside; it lacks the star wattage of Old School or the zeitgeist baiting fervour of American Pie, yet despite those shortcomings it moves along with an economy and relaxed charm that means there’s a strong chance you’ll enjoy the journey and laugh a fair amount along the way.

It’s a very typical set up of the period, and these kind of movies in general – a mix up involving an impromptu sex tape and a hapless race against time for Breckin Meyer’s Josh to get it back; problem is, Phillips has so much fun hanging out with Josh & his crew he fails to inject any real immediacy or stakes to their journey that could have amped up the laughs, it all just comes too easy for them. The key isn’t really in the plotting, mind, more the characters. 

Meyer lacks the awkwardness of a Jason Biggs to mine laughs out of (while equally his love interest Amy Smart is pretty but with little in the way of character to work with) but he’s flanked by Paulo Costanzo as a louche straight man genius, Shaun William Scott playing his usual Stifler-shtick as EL (only with less to work with), though its D.J. Qualls who walks away with the most laughs as awkward virgin Kyle -predictable chortles they may be, but you can say that about the entire film. For me it’s Tom Green who takes the picture though – his comically named Barry Manilow spends half the film trying to coax a snake into eating a mouse; it shouldn’t work but Green is so utterly strange I couldn’t help but laugh.

There’s barely one scene in Road Trip you won’t see coming, or if you’ve watched any of these types of movies, you haven’t seen before. Yet… it’s funny. Not consistently, and some gags don’t quite hit the mark, but plenty do. Forget the scattershot plotting, routine direction, uneven performances & the obviousness of the whole thing, and enjoy a simple film with a simple objective. Then go and milk the prostate, because fellas you totally know you’re going to try…

Seven years on, my feelings about Road Trip are much the same. 2013-era Tony, we’re not so different, you and I…

Road Trip appeals to the basest movie goer in me. It’s impossible to view a film like this through the same lens when you’re (almost) 38 than when you were 18. The gags are more tasteless, the jokes less refined. The sexual politics hasn’t aged well and there is a post-90’s sense of jock-entitlement about the whole endeavour that later carried over into the projects that really made Phillips’ name as a director, The Hangover trilogy (two of which are decent, but little more than that), before he completely upended his own career trajectory with the cultural powerhouse that was last year’s Joker. Unlike Road Trip, that was pure Marmite of a film, which continues to divide months on, and will likely do so for years.

The same won’t be said of Road Trip, a film conceived and marketed through the prism of American Pie’s rampant success in how it reinvented the 80’s sex comedy for a post-modern audience. The irony now, of course, is that American Pie and their ilk feel as outdated and regressive as the films they were updating, which makes Road Trip the shadow of an artefact, something very much of its time and place which doesn’t nearly have the same cultural footprint of the film it so desperately wishes to be. Yet unlike Dinosaur, it lingers in the memory for many, particularly those who were teenagers at the time and responded to the crude, sexual humour and its safe, conservative sense of youthful rebellion.

Quite whether anyone remembers Beer Pong, the straight to DVD sequel however, is another matter entirely…

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

6 – The Beach

7 – The Whole Nine Yards

8 – Wonder Boys

9 – The Next Best Thing

10 – Mission to Mars

11 – Erin Brockovich

12 – Romeo Must Die

13 – The Road to El Dorado

14 – Rules of Engagement

15 – 28 Days

16 – U-571

17 – Frequency

18 – Gladiator

19 – Battlefield Earth

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