Travel Movies

I mentioned in my Sidebar: Summer Movies 2013 blog entry that I would follow-up that critique of the season’s summer films with some potpourri about travel-themed movies. As I see it, there are two kinds: The Classic Road Trip Misadventure, and The Fish out of Water Tale. On my honor, I’ll keep this short. No, really. 🙂

The Classic Road Trip Misadventure

This sub-genre of travel cinema usually makes for a fun time at the movies. Here, the protagonist is sent on his/her way for a reason – often a family emergency – and he/she (I’ll just say “he,” “him,” or “his” going forward) is forced to share his bumpy journey with someone very unlike himself. The two will ultimately find some common ground by film’s end, and if they aren’t good friends by then they’ve at least garnered some sort of mutual respect. These films were huge in the 1980’s.

Examples: “Midnight Run,” “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” “Rain Man,” “Twins.”

Commentary: Each of these films revolves around a short-fused male lead – a cad (Tom Cruise’s slick car salesman in “Rain Man”), a corporate drone (Steve Martin’s lifeless family man in “Planes, Trains & Automobiles”), etc. Unusual circumstances force them to share close quarters on a cross-country road trip. In “Rain Man,” Tom Cruise heads back to his Cincinnati hometown upon learning of his father’s death, only to discover the autistic brother (Dustin Hoffman) he never knew he had. In “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” Steve Martin is forced to share an airplane row…and then a taxi…and then a hotel room…with an overbearing shower curtain ring salesman (the late, great John Candy).

A recent example: “We’re the Millers,” starring Jason Sudeikis and Jennifer Aniston.

A classic example: “It Happened One Night,” starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.

A personal favorite: “Y Tu Mamá También,” starring Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna.

The Fish out of Water Tale

This sub-genre is generally of a higher caliber than The Classic Road Trip Misadventure. The formula is a bit different this time, as the story finds the characters already on – or about to embark on – a pre-planned trip. It usually isn’t until they are where they need to be that things go wrong (or, occasionally, very right), and the protagonist finds himself a stranger in a strange land. These movies can be funny, but are just as often played for straight drama or thrilling adventure.

Examples: “Frantic,” “The Hangover,” “Lost in Translation,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”

Commentary: Each example above follows a different path, and the journey can be funny, exciting, or romantic. In “Frantic,” a jet-lagged American doctor (Harrison Ford) steps out of the shower in his Paris hotel room to find his wife missing. In “The Hangover,” a Vegas bachelor party goes hysterically wrong when the partiers wake up without any memory of the night before…or of the missing groom’s whereabouts. In “Lost in Translation,” two culture-shocked Americans staying at the same Tokyo hotel strike up an is-it-more-than-just-platonic friendship. In “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” a family vacation becomes a comedic nightmare as hapless but well-meaning dad Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase, in his best role) mis-reads maps and just generally screws up what was supposed to be the perfect family vacation. Note that although “National Lampoon’s Vacation” seems to follow the road trip formula, I categorized it differently because in the film, the family’s vacation was planned down to the finest detail. It was Griswold’s plan all along to make the journey as much fun as the destination; he just couldn’t read a map or tolerate his aging Aunt Edna.

A recent example: “The Tourist,” starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie.

A classic example: “Local Hero,” starring Peter Riegert and Burt Lancaster.

A personal favorite: “Midnight in Paris,” starring Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams.

Closing Thoughts

The “travel movie” is a great genre because it simultaneously builds character and propels the plot forward at the same time. This type of film shows characters at their very best and worst moments, as travel often does. (This is something I know too well, Loyal Reader.)

What are your favorite travel-themed movies?

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food, history, and women, all while weathering the culture shock. Life's journey has since brought him to rural Tennessee, perhaps the biggest culture shock of them all. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, and travel in general.

3 thoughts on “Travel Movies”

  1. I’m a big fan of another genre. I don’t know what you’d call it, but examples include movies like Before Sunrise, Lost in Translation, or perhaps The Beach (if it’d been a better adaptation of the book). They’re movies that are set in a romanticized, idyllic version of another place, featuring main characters who are indeed fish out of water but who have experiences that they may not have had at home. They’re movies that tend to inspire travel, or to capture a particular truth about what it means to be a traveller.

    (Interestingly enough, there’s a flip side to these movies: The dark comedy ones that still make you want to visit a place despite it being shown in the worst possible way. I’m thinking of movies like In Bruges, or 2 Days in Paris.)

    1. I like those kinds of movies too. Lost in Translation is sublime. The Beach, however, is my #2 choice for “Worst Jump the Shark Final 30 Minutes,” after No Country for Old Men. Seriously, talk about going off the rails! (The first 90 minutes, though, were great.)

      And I know what you’re hinting at in your second paragraph. It works with other genres, too. Interview with the Vampire was so creepy – yet evocatively-filmed – that I yearned to visit New Orleans for years afterwards. I finally made it there in 2009, and visited a plantation home that – imagine my surprise – happened to be the locale used as Lestat’s manor in the film!

      Thanks for commenting. 🙂

      1. Or, to take it to TV, it’s like the jump in tourism that Albuquerque is getting from Breaking Bad. Meth as a tourist attraction? Who knew?

        Mind you, at least that one’s understandable because the show does great things with desert scenery. The head-scratcher is the tourism boost that The Wire gave Baltimore.

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