If Planes, Trains and Automobiles had a baby with Sideways then the baby decided to go to art school, you’d have The Long Dumb Road, a 90-minute film that screened last week at the Newport Beach Film Festival.
Taken on its visual surface, the movie serves as a kind of art exhibit, showcasing the lesser-appealing crevices of America that never make it onto an Instagram feed or travel magazine. Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo provides us with a window-seat view to the modest hills of Texas, the warm browns of New Mexico and does so in a way that brings fresh life to the ordinary. There’s a constant aesthetic struggle in The Long Dumb Road between the beauty of the commonplace and the uncommon, often ugly experiences to be had there.
The narrative itself is straightforward. A young boy (Tony Revolori) travels from his plush home in Texas to attend art school in Los Angeles. His car breaks down along the way, a down-and-out mechanic helps revive the old minivan then asks for a lift to a nearby town.
Of course, after the 30-something (Jason Mantzoukas) guzzles road beers and smokes a joint—all while waxing poetic about the atrocities of modern youth—we become acutely aware he’s not getting off at the next exit. This dude is sticking it out for the long haul.
As the plot bends with the road, there’s the expected highs and lows of a quixotic journey: the heartbreak of love and loss; the artificial euphoria of drugs and alcohol—coincidentally, our underage hero never gets carded because hello, poetic license!—and the evolving friendship between two unlikely souls driving to a better life … maybe.
Even if the duo isn’t heading for paradise, at the very least they’re journeying toward somewhere different from where they used to be. There’s no sense of upward momentum in this tale, no surging climax and easy resolution. It’s simply an almost unbelievable story of movement into the chaotic unknown.
The charming mix of typical and fantastical is bolstered by a talented cast in possession of impeccable comedic timing. (SNL’s Casey Wilson makes an appearance as the ex-girlfriend; Grace Gummer, Meryl Streep’s real-life daughter, plays a Rolling Stones-loving free soul; and Office Space’s Ron Livingston is the unlikely villain.)
Director Hannah Fidell, who co-wrote the script along with Carson Mell, is a master at keeping dialogue frank and sap-free. During those sentimental moments when this movie could devolve into the mawkish cliché, it never quite gets there. Instead, a thief shows up to leave our two protagonists stranded in the wild or an elderly woman with a pick-up truck saves the day, only to rage ad infinitum about a strange encounter with a bear.
Whenever the story veers toward the expected, there’s always another turn in the bend. The road may be long and dumb in this delightful buddy comedy but those bland hills of Texas have harebrained eyes we might not see.