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. 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 just as often are 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
A classic example: Local Hero
A personal favorite: Midnight in Paris
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?