The Road Worriers

Time for a quickish little round-up of films from 2013 that (for the sake of thematic cohesion) included road trips, to lesser or greater extents.

Nebraska - 2013
Written by Bob Nelson
Directed by Alexander Payne

Road Trip: Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska (and back)

Nebraska is a film that knows how to play the spaces between the notes.  Bruce Dern plays a man who has never wanted much from life.  This changes when he misinterprets a letter from a magazine publishers' sweepstakes, he becomes determined to get to Nebraska to collect his winnings, despite the fact that he's no longer allowed to drive.  His son, who feels like he knows nothing about his father, is tasked with accompanying him on the journey and keeping him safe -- mostly from himself.  As it turns out, his son (SNL's Will "MacGruber" Forte) only knows slightly less about his laconic father than his father knows about himself.  Nebraska brought David Lynch's The Straight Story to mind for me, but it definitely has its ow story to tell.  I think it will mean a lot more to you if you have had a taciturn Midwesterner in your life.  Its pacing recalls both the sparse conversational patterns of Middle America's Scandinavian sons, as well as the slowly shifting landscape of its highways.

Inside Llewyn Davis - 2013
Written & Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen

Road Trip: Greenwich Village, NYC to Chicago, IL (and back)

I would ordinarily go out of my way not to spoil the end of most movies, but I'm going to tell you something very important about Inside Llewyn Davis.

He does not commit suicide or otherwise get killed in the end.

I mention this because I found myself unwilling to fully invest in Llewyn and his story due to what seemed to be foreshadowing from the very first scene.  Also, the Coens have embraced "down" endings increasingly over the years which has led me to form less empathetic relationships with their characters.  It was only after the film ended and Llewyn didn't hang himself that I began to empathize and realize that... Llewyn is kind of me.

Llewyn is a frustrated folk singer struggling to make a creative place for himself at the dawn of the folk music scene on the early 60s.  His former singing partner DID commit suicide, and he literally cannot give his solo album away.  During the week covered in the film, his mean existence goes from hardscrabble to desperate -- so much so that he can't even give up effectively.  A surface viewing of Llewyn indicates that he's an asshole.  He's certainly called one often enough.  But a deeper look suggests that these are the panicked and often defensive flailings of a man treading water, and losing strength.

The Way, Way Back - 2013
Written & Directed by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash

Road Trip: from childhood to young adulthood; also to Cape Cod (and back)

The Way, Way Back is sort of a mix-tape dedicated to the 1980s, and not just because of its throwback soundtrack of radio cheese.  It particularly reminded me of Meatballs, but told from the perspective of the gawky kid that Bill Murray would take under his wing.  In this case, Sam Rockwell plays the early 80s Bill Murray type character and Liam James is Duncan, the 14 year old loner.  Duncan is forced to ride in the "way, way back" of a vintage 1970s station wagon (those of you who know will have already guessed that), to and from summer vacation with his mom, and her boyfriend and his daughter.

I almost didn't watch this film, because it opens with such an uncomfortable scene between Duncan and his mom's boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell).  Trent is controlling and demeaning toward Duncan, interpreting his role as "new dad" (despite the lack of any such invitation) in a way that we can be pretty sure that he experienced himself.  While constantly pressured from all quarters to cheer up and become sociable, Duncan is never really offered the opportunity to do so.  His mom is primarily interested in keeping Trent happy (a fear reaction to the callous dumping from Duncan's father), Trent is a domineering prick who's more interested in turning Duncan into him than finding out who Duncan might already be, and Trent's daughter is just enough older (and thoroughly self-involved) to only notice Duncan's existence when it annoys her.  The adults get caught up in their friends and Trent's daughter in hers, and Duncan sits, trapped, on a fishing boat in a life vest with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

Until, that is, he finds a flowery pink girl's bicycle in the garage at the beach house and starts venturing into town on his own.  It's there that he meets Owen (Rockwell) and his colorful coterie of cohorts at the Water Wizz water park.  It's there, through their acceptance and encouragement that he finally comes alive and learns that he doesn't have to hate himself to become something more than scared.  It's fortunate that Duncan takes center stage and while the conflict with Trent remains present, Trent himself gets nudged into a supporting role.  Upon reflection, the film does cheat a little bit by giving Duncan a shortcut to victory over the seeming inevitability of life with Trent's emotional abuse, but Trent's self-centered nature does make it seem like a natural progression.

Writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash would have grown up in the 80s, and The Way, Way Back plays like a love letter to the summer vacation movies of the era -- in the good way (Easy A, yes. Take Me Home Tonight, hell no).  I loved the crap out of this movie, and it will definitely be added to my list of the year's best films.

Philomena - 2013
Written by Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope
Directed by Steven Frears

Road Trip: London to Ireland; Ireland to the United States (and back)

If you've gotten tired of seething with rage at the abuses of Catholic priests, friend, have I got a film for you.  Philomena will have you seething with rage at the abuses of Catholic nuns before it's done.

The film puts a face on the stories of the babies effectively stolen from their mothers and sold to Americans, and the girls from whom they were stolen while essentially indentured to the convents.  That face is Judy Dench's, in the role of Philomena, who finally opens up to her daughter 50 years later about the son who was taken from her.  The daughter gets in contact with Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former reporter and disgraced ex-Director of Communications for the Labour Party.  The film is adapted from his book.

They set out on a journey, both physical and emotional, to locate Philomena's son.  The sisters at the convent are, shall we say, unhelpful at best.  Through Sixsmith's research, he's finally able to find a lead that takes them to the United States on their quest for Philomena's son, and answers.  There is much that is predictable in the story, which is somewhat natural given the similarity of mother/child separation stories, but there were a few surprises as well.  That's really irrelevant, however, as the meat of the story comes from what Martin and Philomena go through and learn along the way.  Martin's a bit of a snooty Oxford twat, which isn't a terrible stretch for Coogan, but he's much better rounded as a human being here than many of his more broadly approached performances in the past.  Given the the most recent role most people will have seen Dench play is M in the Bond films, it's almost startling to see her in a meeker, but still disarming role here.

Through all that Philomena goes through, she struggles to find a safe and sane approach to faith despite the patterns of control and abuse that the nuns used to make her so meek and ashamed.  As the film is told from Sixsmith's perspective, but it primarily driven by Philomena's story, I would have liked to spend a little more time with her internal conflicts, but that's really just a hunger for a third scoop of ice cream when you've had two scoops with your pie already.

There's a certain, hm... pornographic predictability to most mother/child separation tales, and a niche audience for that consistency.  Philomena is the one for the rest of us.

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