|Written by Bill Warren|
|Friday, 01 September 2006|
Is Sony rushing films out to Blu-Ray willy-nilly? It would seem to make good business sense to begin with (a) popular films (b) whose appeal is heightened by being in high definition video. So far, Columbia’s selection of films to treat in this manner seems confusing—although it must be said that once “RV” reaches the Colorado Rockies (played by the Canadian Rockies), the high-definition virtues are realized. But a lot of it takes place inside the bus-like vehicle of the title, with the views out the windows largely added by blue-screen matting.
As we all have come to understand, nothing, absolutely nothing, says “family comedy” more than a good supply of poop jokes, a family and lots of slapstick. By this standard, the perfect family comedy would be mom and dad having a pie fight with junior in a cess pool. But until that happy time arrives, “RV” is an ideal family comedy, as it spends about ten minutes early on drenching Robin Williams in the liquefied contents of his huge RV’s toilet storage tank. He announces more than once that he’s covered in fecal material. Slapstick and poop combined. On the commentary track, amusing director Barry Sonnenfeld explains that he himself thinks poop is pretty funny, hence its inclusion here.
However, the movie, a modest hit, is actually reasonably entertaining. This is mostly due to director Barry Sonnenfeld (“The Addams Family,” “Men in Black”) and the talented cast. The screenplay by Geoff Rodkey is clumsy and obvious, but the movie, as sometimes happens, is considerably better than its own script. (Rodkey also wrote “Daddy Day Care” and the recent new Disney version of “The Shaggy Dog.”)
It’s definitely a formula movie; the formula goes back as at least as far as “Sullivan’s Travels” (1942), when movie star Joel McCrea tried to see the real America in a huge land yacht. That was only a small part of the movie, but 1954 brought “The Long, Long Trailer” with Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, in which they played a married couple who have enormous problems while vacationing in the travel trailer of the title.
“RV” establishes Robin Williams as Bob Monroe, married with two kids, who’s in the advertising/promotions department of germophobic Todd Mallory (a grinning, reptilian Will Arnett). Bob’s facing stiff competition from an upstart in his office, and Todd’s a hard man to please anyway—and demands obsequious devotion from his hirelings. Bob and wife Jamie (Cheryl Hines, from “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) are looking forward to a long-planned Hawaiian vacation.
The movie opens in the past, with Bob clearly adored by his young daughter Cassie, then switches (without a clear indication) to the present day. Cassie (Joanna “JoJo” Levesque) now regards her father with a teenager’s withering disdain. Her younger brother Carl (Josh Hutcherson) spends his time listening to rap and pumping iron. He, too, is distant from Bob. But the kids, too, are looking forward to Hawaii.
After an unpleasant incident at a party involving Todd’s marketing of sugar-laden soft drinks to schools, Bob finds himself on the brink of being fired. In a few days he has to join Todd in Boulder, Colorado at the headquarters of a healthy, environmentally conscious regional soft drink company to convince the owners to allow their firm to be bought out by Todd’s. Todd arrogantly tells Bob to cancel the Hawaiian trip, and also makes it clear that Bob’s job depends on his showing up in Boulder.
Bob wants to reach his kids, and has to be in Boulder. Instead of explaining his job problems to Cassie and the kids, he rents a mammoth RV and announces that instead of Hawaii, the family will spend two weeks driving around in the gigantic vehicle. The movie doesn’t provide a convincing reason why Bob doesn’t just explain his dilemma to his family; this is the principal weakness of the over-complicated plot. Clearly the movie will require Bob to quit his job with Todd, but it takes about 90 minutes of the 98-minute running time to reach that foregone conclusion.
Still, the trip is fun to watch. First, Bob has to deal with his annoyed children, who’d rather be surfing in Hawaii than cruising through desert flatlands. (All location work was in Canada, convincingly masquerading as the American Southwest.) Also, of course, almost everything that could go wrong does go wrong. There’s that waste disposal problem, a trio of raccoons to contend with, a drenching downpour, the parking brake doesn’t work, the awning is torn off and so forth. Bob keeps trying to eMail his proposal to Todd, but his laptop is stolen and his Blackberry can’t connect by wi-fi. This particular complication should have been dropped as it has no payoff; Bob finally does send the proposal, and Todd likes it—so Bob’s efforts seem a waste of time.
A more interesting complication is the Gornicke family, headed by Travis (Jeff Daniels) and MaryJo (Kristen Chenoweth). They have three kids and travel about the country in a huge bus. They make enough money to spend their entire time cruising about the U.S. But they’re also very country-western styled, appearing like appalling hicks to the Monroes, who can’t seem to get away from them. The RV and the story wend their way to Colorado. By the time they get there, Bob has almost reconnected with his kids—but of course, there’s a setback.
Barry Sonnenfeld directed, and that’s him on the side of the Monroe’s RV. Evidently this huge ad meant a reduced rental price for Bob, although this is never explained, nor is the garish sign mentioned after we first see it. That’s actually a joke in itself, but it’s subtle. On the commentary track, Sonnenfeld cheerfully points himself out over and over. “There I am again!”
The rest of the movie isn’t subtle, of course; it’s an all-out family comedy, with disaster and squabbles the primary content. But the cast is especially good, top to bottom, and Sonnenfeld’s always been fine with actors. Williams hasn’t had a role this large in years, and it’s a pleasure to have him back. He even gets to do one of his brilliant comedy riffs when he encounters three would-be homeboys (from Arizona) in a park and lays a Malibu-influenced rap barrage on them. He also works very well with the two actors playing his children; there’s real warmth in his scenes with Josh Hutcherson, who was very good in “Kicking and Screaming” and “Zathura.” He’s fine here, too; he provides a real characterization that’s useful to the movie.
One of the several quite good featurettes on the Blu-Ray disc focuses on Robin Williams. Sonnenfeld explains that whenever Robin had a few lines, they allowed him to run through a lot of improvised variations, knowing this would give them more footage to play with during the editing process. Williams’ ability as a human funny machine is legendary, and the featurette offers more evidence, if any were needed, he’s one of the funniest people alive.
Cheryl Hines is impressive as Robin’s wife Jamie; she’s bright and winning, but just a little oblivious to her husband. Wearing earphones she sings along (badly) with “G.T.O.”, unaware that her bellowing is driving others in the RV to distraction. Her performance has great clarity: we always understand her motivations and actions, and they always seem appropriate for this character.
Joanna “JoJo” Levesque is one of those phenomena that come along every now and then. Out of nowhere she became a recording star and has been acting since she was eight. This is only her second movie; the first, “Aquamarine,” was released earlier this year. She’s not yet as adept as the cast around her, but she’s fun to watch. One of the featurettes is devoted to her, showing she’s bright, funny and a good sport.
Here, Jeff Daniels more or less has the Randy Quaid role—certainly the Quaid role from the “National Lampoon’s Vacation” series. Daniel is a big cowboy type, extravagant in gesture and personality; the Monroes think he’s a dumb clodhopper, but even before dialogue reveals he’s not, we can see more to him than the Monroes do. Daniels is one of the most reliable actors around, moving very believably from broad comedy (“Dumb and Dumber”) to moving drama (“The Squid and the Whale.”). He’s always convincing. One of the commentaries reveals that Daniels himself is an RV enthusiast, and drove to the movie’s Vancouver locations from his home. He also wrote a song, “Ballad of the Kosher Cowboy,” about Sonnenfeld. And does his own singing and guitar playing in the musical number that closes the film.
Kristen Chenoweth is charming as the good ol’ girl, happy and as outgoing as her husband. She dresses in slightly outrageous country-western garb, but like Daniels, we in the audience see there’s a person inside the flashy clothes. And she’s a good singer, too. Hines isn’t, but is amusing in her enthusiastic badness.
The movie is full of gags; some work, some don’t. Those that don’t can make you roll your eyes and start wondering how much longer you’ll have to sit there, but bad stuff is quickly followed by good stuff or interesting character bits. The plot is unnecessarily complicated, but doesn’t interfere with the story.
As with “40 Year Old Virgin,” “RV” concludes with the main cast doing a terrific musical number; here, it’s appropriately the classic “Route 66,” with everyone, especially Levesque, simply wonderful.
“RV” is a summer comedy arriving in spring, but it’s out in summer on this Blu-Ray DVD. It has its problems, but it also has the virtue of being very funny and occasionally even a little moving.
As mentioned earlier, the several featurettes here are well above average for this kind of thing. In “Barry Sonnenfeld, the Kosher Cowboy,” his wife Susan Ringo (whom everyone calls “Sweetie”) has amusing comments about her husband, who has a tendency to (amusingly) whine. It’s an accurate, affectionate portrait of the director, who isn’t quite like any other director out there.
“JoJo: The Pop Princess” is a fairly brief look at this young woman, who seems to be an absolute doll. Her brother on screen, Josh Hutcherson, is clearly wowed by working with a singing star, and just as clearly determined to present himself as a cool, unflappable professional.
“RV Nation: The Culture of Road Warriors” features the cast and some crew talking about their own vacation trips with their families. This is the most entertaining of the featurettes and, perhaps not accidentally, the least oriented to promoting “RV.” “Robin Williams: A Family Apart” follows the warm-hearted Williams around the set; catching him in unguarded moments being the decent, funny guy he really seems to be. Then there’s “The Scoop on Poop,” devoted to the septic tank sequence. Sonnenfeld says “working with fecal matter is very interesting.” To the Kosher Cowboy, maybe.
I’ve interviewed Sonnenfeld several times, and he’s always a funny combination of ego, self-deprecation and a kind of relaxed fuss-budget quality. The system used for this commentary track allows Sonnenfeld to draw big white lines on the screen, circling faces, indicating where the Pacific Ocean was just out of sight behind some sand dunes supposedly in Arizona, always gleefully announcing his picture on the side of the RV. It’s one of the most amusing commentary tracks I’ve heard. “Oh look, there’s me.”
As far as a showy demonstration of high definition, however, “RV” is hit and miss. Once the story reaches the mountains, the process pays off with richly detailed mountain landscapes, deep blacks, warm browns and velvety greens in the forest scenes. Right now, high-definition video, whether Blu-Ray or the other process, is in the position that CinemaScope and 3D were just after their introduction. At first, every damned movie was ‘Scope or 3D, even those to which the processes brought very little. Eventually, of course, the idea is for these two competing processes to become the ONLY way DVDs are presented. Both sides should be offering product that’s greatly enhanced by greater definition, but instead they’re tossing out there just about everything, devil take the hindmost. The format that’s used for the most films that look great in that format is likely to be the winner, but they haven’t reached that stage of wiser competition yet. So the audience may well just sit on their hands in terms of upgrading their systems.