A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, PG-13, 98 mins.
Bob Munro: Robin Williams / Jamie Munro: Cheryl Hines / Travis Gornicke: Jeff Daniels
/ Mary Jo Gornicke: Kristin Chenoweth / Cassie Munro: Joanna "JoJo" Levesque
/ Carl Munro: Josh Hutcherson / Earl Gornicke: Hunter Parrish
/ Moon Gornicke: Chloe Sonnenfeld
I sure liked RV a lot better when it was called NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION, or EUROPEAN VACATION, or CHRISTMAS VACATION…or…hell…even VEGAS VACATION. Let’s face it, the overall premise of RV is nothing entirely new and it could occupy an entire genre in itself. Having said that, it pains me to see celluloid wasted with decent, proven talent that regurgitates old stories and conventions.
The film has all of the staple elements of these types of familiar comedies (The Clark Griswald-doofus dad; his loyal, but cankerous wife; the unruly and selfish adolescent children; and finally the cross country trip that involves some sort of cramped and confined vehicle). Well, RV does have two fresh things about it – the family king sizes their ride and instead of taking the family truckster (a station wagon) like Chevy Chase’s clan did, they opt for a large recreational vehicle. Oh, the other thing is that, as far as I can remember, the fathers in other family vacation movies did not get themselves covered in human fecal matter.
The father this time is played by Robin Williams, who must have lost some serious side bet with someone to agree to parade around in this barrage of inane and recycled jokes and pratfalls. I myself fear for Mr. Williams, who himself is one of the funnier men on the planet, but his willingness to let himself appear in far too many mediocre comedies is kind of startling. Ironically, for a man that began his career as a stand-up comic, Williams has carved out for himself a highly respectable career as a serious, dramatic actor. His most memorable roles are ones where he rigidly plays against type. For my money, his weakest films are ones that let him meander aimlessly into his endless, hyperactive and incessant improvisations. His energy can be funny, but if the film around him does not frame and harness his comic abilities, then what are we left with? Oh, an Oscar winning actor that just may be the only one in Academy history that has played in a scene where an RV’s septic tank explodes like a geyser and its contents find their way all over his visage. Do studios think we desperately yearn for more poop humor?
Williams can’t be the only one to blame. The man helming this unfunny and B-grade comic enterprise is Barry Sonnenfeld, who has never been able to recapture his sarcastic and daft touches he infused in winning comedies like the first MEN IN BLACK film and the wonderful GET SHORTY, his best film. Yet, it’s been all down hill since the latter mentioned John Travolta vehicle and Sonnenfeld has allowed himself to waiver in a string of witless and moronic films, like MEN IN BLACK 2, WILD WILD WEST, and BIG TROUBLE. Now comes RV, which goes a long way to demonstrate that the director peaked several years ago without much future hope in sight.
I guess that if you going to tell yet another would-be hilarious family road trip film, why not dare to be something different? Is that too much to ask? At least the opening moments of RV have a slightly subversive and sly satiric edge. There are a lot of nail-biting sarcasm and biting laughs within the film’s first few minutes. Yet, once the film gets bogged down with the particulars of the family’s trip and once they start their cross-country trek, everything goes down a narrow and all-too-familiar path.
The film side steps black humor and slips into a sporadically funny and monotonous series of dull sight gags and silly dialogue. Sonnenfeld is no stranger to finding the most macabre things funny (he helmed the two ADAMS FAMILY films, which had the appropriate level of sardonic edge and creepiness), but he cops out of the film’s promising beginning and coasts throughout the rest of the it on a stream of blunt predictability. And…c’mon…Robin Williams covered in feces? Is that really funny? For a film that has teeth, it never really bites down into its underlining material. Instead, RV just becomes a torrid snooze fest.
Here’s an idea – why not make a family road trip film where the family does not grow to love and respect one another in the end? RV sets up its family as being a bit off from the norm (“We watch TV in four separate rooms and I.M. each other when it's time to eat dinner,” Williams points out to his wife at one point. She later deadpans, “Remember dear, we are not friendly people”). In terms of superficial comparisons to the Griswalds (their not-too-distant cinematic relatives) this family – the Munro’s – are noticeably well off and affluent. They are not a middle-class, blue-collar family. Instead, the Munro’s have a slimy snobbery about them. Why not truly channel their egotistical impulses throughout the film and more fully explore their dysfunctionality? Maybe there would have been more spirited and wickedly dark laughs by chronicling a vindictive and mean spirited family carving their way through the highways of America on their way to their vacation destination. Nope, instead we get a comedy that drains out any inkling of originality and wit and instead becomes something wasteful and tedious. I hate to say this, but where is Chevy Chase when we need him?
The family in this road film are the usual grab bag of clichéd characters. We have Williams as the dad, Bob, a man that only wants to reconnect to his aging kids that want to have nothing to do with him. We have Cheryl Hines as his wife, Jamie, who loves her husband but rigidly questions his every vacationing decision. Then we have the two kids (there are always two in these type of films). First there is Cassie (Joanna "JoJo" Levesque), who worshiped her father as a young child and now treats him as an utter nuisance during her rebellious and independent teen years. Secondly, there is Carl (Josh Hutcherson), who seems to have an incredible fondness for bodybuilding for a young lad that barely has any abs of steel to speak of.
Of course, as is the case with this “genre”, dad begins to fear that his best days with his once-loving children are leaving him, so he desperately hatches out a plan to spend some quality time with them. His plan was to take the whole Munro tribe out to Hawaii, but it is foiled by his obnoxiously callous boss, Todd (Will Arnett, giving the film’s only inspired comedic performance). Forcing him to make a last-ditch and all-too crucial presentation in Boulder, Colorado, Bob is forced to cancel his trip with his fam' to Hawaii. Completely afraid to tell everyone that he has to put business before pleasure, Bob concocts an ingenious (but somewhat mean-spirited and self-serving) plan of taking the family camping to Boulder via a rented RV. Jamie, being the pragmatist, states the obvious to the hapless Bob (“We are not a camping family!”). Bob, blindsided by tunnel vision, sees things otherwise and loads up the RV and they all hit to highway.
A lot of unforeseen problems ensue for the family, not the least of which being the incessant bickering of Bob’s two kids and his complete inability to empty the RV’s sewage properly. He gets smothered in crap. Ho, Ho. Then their worst nightmare comes true in the form of another cross-country traveling family – the Gornickes, Travis and Mary Jo (played by the funny, but slight underused Jeff Daniels and the teeth grating Kristin Chenoweth) and their kids Earl (Hunter Parrish), Moon (Chloe Sonnenfeld), and Billy (Alex Ferris). The Gornickes are friendly, in a persistent Ned Flanders kind of way. They are a bible thumping, country song singing, RV worshipping group of squeaky-clean Americana. In short…everything that the Munros are not.
Okay, the Gornickes are super nerds (their RV’s air horn plays the theme from STAR TREK), but they are not mean people. The Munros sort of treat them like some unwanted excrement that is found on the bottom of their shoes. There is an vile hostility that they display that is not played up to decent effect. They will do absolutely anything possible to get rid of them once and for all (my favourite moment between the two involves Bob explaining the origin of his son’s name. “This is Carl…named after Carl Max, the father of modern Communism. You may have heard of them?”). The Gornickes take all of the Munros’ efforts to distance themselves with a grain of salt. Even after they make it clear that they want to have nothing to do with them, the Gornickes still try to impart their wholesomeness to Bob and Jamie. “Do you wanna hear about the time Jesus saved us from a tornado,” Mary Jo asks the two at one point.
There is a subtle harshness that permeates the Munro family, especially in their reactions and treatment of others (specially, the Gornickes). Yet, the film would rather be a play-it-by-ear family comedy than a twisted and scatological black comedy of manners. They film gets too quickly bogged down in its routine story and its paradoxical sugarcoating of the Munro family. There are hints here and there of the family’s more perverse sides. Some of the exchanges are real zingers, like when Cassie tells Bob, “Maybe we can feed Carl to the raccoon,” to which Carl replies, “Maybe we can get him to eat you because he’s on the south bitch diet.” Bob proudly and hilariously says, “Good one, son.” There is a raw edge buried deep down in this atypical family, but RV is too scared to go the distance with channeling them as bleak characters.
The film could have had a level of toxic and acerbic laughs but gets too polluted with lame and tired slap stick moments, like a painfully unfunny bit with Bob trying to back the RV up or him trying to get his seat belt on. Other moments in the film desperately try to garner big laughs and instead generate our ridicule. A short scene with some raccoons making their way into the RV - and Bob’s attempts to get them off - are pathetic in execution and payoff, as are other scenes with Bob trying to get his RV off of, get this, a peak on Diablo Pass. Miraculously, Bob manages to get his vehicle balanced perfectly on the peak, so much so that neither the front or rear tires are hitting any type of ground. Then we are forced to sit through an extended and inane scene of Williams trying to rock the RV back and forth to gain momentum. There is a desperation and forcefulness to Williams' comic timing here that is kind of unappealing.
Mixed in with all of these excruciatingly juvenile moments is Williams talking like a gangster rapper, him trying to pull up the RV as it sinks into a lake, some heavy handed sermonizing of the importance of family bonding and a speech by him near the end that should get him the PATCH ADAMS LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD for nauseatingly soppy and laugh-inducing sentimentality. For a film about a family that is kind of horrible at their core, the film’s willingness to make them into likeable personas in the end is a bit of a cheap shot.
The material of RV has been done and done to far better comic potential in other films of the past, which ultimately makes this rudimentary and criminally lackluster Robin Williams vehicle all the more difficult to sit through. The film, to its credit, has a funny set up and some of its dialogue hits the right cynical notes, but it's a failure in terms of its inconsistent tone mixed with a scattershot assembly of exhausted and stupid physical comedy. Instead of trying to tell perhaps a bit more of a darkly funny comedy about a dysfunctional family that tries to reconnect on the highways of America, RV sidesteps good satire and an acidic edge for a more run-of-the-mill and massively predictable family road movie. And on a personal note – for shame Robin Williams. You are capable of being funnier than anyone, but you all owe us an apology for this wasteful effort. As to paraphrase one character’s description of the family RV itself, this film is just one “Big Rolling Turd.”