Road Trip

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Summer. It’s the time of year when the movie industry checks most of its collective brains at the door, figuring that the viewing audience has done the same, and angles for blockbuster box office results among 14- to 24-year-olds. Noting that a film has both Tom Green and someone with the role of "Sperm Bank Nurse" listed in the credits, one might rightfully think that it falls into the same mold of so many summer films before it – where bare breasts and bodily functions rule. But Road Trip is an exception. While it may still be no paragon of Art, it’s definitely a cut above standard teen-tailored fare and it deserves some credit for also managing to launch a few pointed barbs at the formula it serves.

With the Scream series, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson breathed some new life into the teen slasher genre by deconstructing and satirizing its conventions while still serving up the requisite amounts of shock and gore. With Road Trip, director-screenwriter Todd Phillips and co-author Scott Armstrong have taken the same tack with the college party film. They’ve taken a fairly straightforward college prankster plot premise and given it a twist, resulting in a film that surprises almost as often as it titillates.

Josh and his Ithaca University buddies are considered experts on The Rules of Cheating, things like "It’s not cheating on your girlfriend if you’re too wasted to remember it, because if you can’t remember it, it never really took place." But even Josh has to admit that it’s definitely cheating if you videotape it – and then someone mistakenly mails the tape to your girlfriend. So Josh and three of his friends take off on an 1800-mile odyssey to Texas to intercept the tape before it can reach his girlfriend at the University of Austin. Josh (Breckin Meyer, Go, Clueless) is the classic nice guy who deserves better than what life usually hands him. His group of pals is just as stereotyped: there’s a sly jokester (Seann William Scott, American Pie), an egghead (Paulo Costanzo), and a nerd (DJ Qualls). And of course, Josh’s long-distance girlfriend (Rachael Blanchard) and his Ithaca fling (Amy Smart, Varsity Blues) are both major babes.

At this point, many filmmakers would have been content to put the film on autopilot and coast home from there. But Phillips and Armstrong continually manage to give the audience credit for having an attention span longer than a fruit fly’s. There may be no major surprises here, but they deftly parody more than a few scenes from famous films, and continually manage to take the action just a few degrees askew of where we’re sure it’s headed. They also manage to lampoon the standard college party movie plot, at one point having someone wonder aloud why there are so many bare-breasted women walking around in a dorm. And the female characters are refreshingly strong and clearly drawn for a story of this mold – they’re the two smartest and most focused people in the film.

Given this degree of freshness, it’s disappointing when the film occasionally resorts to terminal stupidity and over-the-top physical humor. It’s these tentative ventures into There’s Something About Mary territory that fall flat as the film gets pinned down in that barren DMZ that stretches between wit and slapstick. One absurd plot development involves someone getting the cities of Austin and Boston confused, and the blind and obese are briefly snickered at but the net result is more cringes than laughs.

As Josh, Breckin Meyer is winning and sympathetic. The rest of the cast is fairly nondescript, except for Seann William Scott, who does a young Jim Carrey impression through most of the movie. One caveat – MTV’s Tom Green is featured prominently in the film’s ad campaign, but thankfully he’s only a minor player, one whose absence altogether would have been an improvement.

Road Trip is not Masterpiece Theater. It’s not even Animal House. But it’s funny, occasionally witty, and often adventurous beyond its charter. If you can forgive its forays into tastelessness you’ll find it an amusing ride.

– Bob Aulert