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Midway through Road Trip, four college students order breakfast in a diner. When the food arrives, one of them notices that his French toast is sprinkled with powdered sugar. He informs the waiter that he must restrict his sugar intake and politely asks if he can return the toast for an unsweetened order. The hairy, obese server agrees and removes the plate to the kitchen where, out of sight, he picks up each slice of bread with his greasy fingers and licks off the sugar. He then slips the soggy toast into his sweatpants—one slice in his crotch and the other on his butt—and proceeds to waddle about the restaurant, attending to other customers. Finally, he retrieves the now-mangled French toast and returns it to the grateful adolescent, who, after a bite, pronounces it delicious.
Do you want to see a movie in which this scene appears? The knee-jerk response of several people I’ve polled is “Of course not” or, more expressively, “Yuck!” But judging from the gales of laughter and rounds of spontaneous applause at the public preview I attended, Todd Phillips’ first fiction feature appears destined to become one of the summer’s runaway hits. Judged by the standards of the gross-out slapstick genre launched two decades ago by National Lampoon’s Animal House and Porky’s—and recently revived by cum-in-the-hair and prick-in-the-pastry farces—Road Trip rates pretty highly. If you can get past the repulsive passages, you’ll find enough funny stuff to make the journey worthwhile.
Phillips’ and Scot Armstrong’s screenplay is triggered by the geographical separation of two childhood sweethearts. Josh (Breckin Meyer) attends college in Ithaca, N.Y., while his girlfriend Tiffany (Rachel Blanchard) studies veterinary medicine in Austin, Texas. (The movie tends to be rather cavalier about certain details, including how a teenager manages to enroll in vet school.) The couple vows to be faithful, but Josh succumbs to a one-night, three-orgasm romp with Beth (Amy Smart), an aggressive coed who pursues him. With his permission, she videotapes their erotic hijinks. The following morning, this cassette is mistaken for one containing a video-letter Josh has made for Tiffany, and is unwittingly mailed to her. Horrified by the screw-up, Josh has just three days to drive 1,800 miles to Texas and intercept the tape before his girlfriend receives it.
Josh hits the highway in a white Taurus accompanied by three classmates: goofy E.L. (Seann William Scott from American Pie), brainy Rubin (Paulo Costanzo), and nerdy Kyle (DJ Qualls). Phillips and Armstrong take advantage of the arbitrary structure of a cross-country trip to present an assortment of vignettes including, in addition to the diner episode, a heist at a school for the blind, an overnight stay at an all-black fraternity, some emergency fund-raising at a sperm bank, and an encounter with a schoolmate’s priapic, Viagra-driven grandpa. They bracket these skits in a loose narrative frame as part of a yarn spun by Barry (Tom Green), a half-demented Ithaca University tour guide, as he leads a group of visitors around the campus. To complicate the untidy structure further, there’s a second narrator within Barry’s tale, and a subplot involving Beth on a wild-goose chase to Boston (which rhymes with Austin).
Phillips isn’t so much interested in storytelling as in unleashing a steady flow of gags—some lively, some lame—and showcasing his youthful cast. As the relatively sedate centers of the movie, Meyer and Smart draw rather thankless roles. Though often amusing, Scott and Costanzo are overshadowed by Qualls who, in his feature debut, defines, transcends, and humanizes a wheezy comic archetype. Shy, father-dominated Kyle is a born loser, invited to join the odyssey only because he can supply the necessary car. A skeleton adorned with Dumbo ears, a ski-jump nose, and a bobbing Adam’s apple, Qualls vibrantly charts each step of Kyle’s interstate transition from insecure dork to self-assertive swinger, notably his enthusiastically misguided Riverdance contribution to a hiphop party and his sexual initiation by a warm-hearted, huge-bottomed woman in leopard-skin panties. Whenever he’s onscreen, Road Trip soars above its low intentions.
Green’s addled Barry—half-human, half-animal—intentionally echoes John Belushi’s Bluto from Animal House. (Ivan Reitman produced both movies.) Headliner of an MTV comedy show, Green is an acquired taste which, thus far, I’ve been unable to acquire. Potentially, Barry is a star-making role, but Green’s desperate hunger to unhinge the audience has the same queasy, neurotic edge that has made comedians from Dom DeLuise to Chris Farley seem more like clinical cases than funnymen.
Director Phillips first gained notoriety with Hated, an underground documentary about the late punk rocker G.G. Allin. His breakthrough effort should have been Frat House, an HBO-sponsored documentary that won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Sundance Festival. Subsequently, charges arose that some of the cinema verite hazing footage was staged, and HBO shelved the film, apparently to ward off threats of potential legal action. Road Trip, a fictional return to campus themes, is a hit-and-miss affair. Phillips has created a classic gut-busting sequence in which the boys fearlessly attempt to leap a washed-out bridge in Kyle’s father’s car. The filmmaker builds and times this episode with the meticulousness of a silent comedy director, springing additional gags just when you’re sure that he’s extracted every possible laugh from the situation. But then he sinks back into the sophomoric ooze from which he’s emerged, a swamp of rebarbative japes involving a vibrator, a foot fetishist, a rubber-gloved prostate “milking,” a geezer’s protuberant boner, and an obscenity-spouting talking dog.
Older moviegoers will probably shun Road Trip, but their absence will hardly be noticed in the rush of teenagers and 20-somethings queuing up for tickets. I don’t necessarily believe that young people patronize gross-out movies because they are the mindless spawn of a stupid, vulgar culture. (This conclusion, however, can’t be entirely dismissed when you consider the clownish candidates running for our highest political office.) My hunch is that Rabelaisian humor offers them a tonic to the stifling pieties imposed by parents, teachers, clergy, politicians, and other authority figures. In a society where nearly every other human response has become predictable, disgust remains a spontaneous, transgressive impulse. Kids don’t howl at Road Trip’s diner scene because they find it particularly funny, but because laughing at it constitutes a kind of liberation from the tyranny of good taste and the encroachment of adulthood. If the film becomes a hit, I wouldn’t leap to the conclusion that the end of civilization is at hand. But if I owned stock in a company that had anything to do with French toast, I’d unload it before the closing market bell sounded. CP