What Makes a Great Travel Movie? Complications

Getting too close for comfort in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures

Taking a movie character out of a daily routine and into a car, train, plane, ocean liner or the great wide open immediately adds twists, turns and fish-out-of-water elements. This can be true of dramas, comedies, thrillers, romance movies and, should the vehicle launch into space, sci-fi. But some of the best movies built around journeys feature trips in which things do not go as planned. What follows are seven faves.

Midnight Run. In Martin Brest’s 1988 action-comedy, bounty hunter Jack (Robert De Niro) is getting $100,000 from a bail bondsman (Joe Pantoliano) to take mob accountant Duke (Charles Grodin) from New York to Los Angeles. Thanks to complications posed by a mob boss (Dennis Farina), an FBI agent (Yaphet Kotto) and a rival bounty hunter (John Ashton), Jack and Duke go from plane to train to bus to stolen cars to hitchhiking across the country. De Niro’s patented take-no-shit attitude and Grodin’s annoying deadpan inquisitiveness drive the story, but it’s their chemistry that makes the picture.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Given what I just wrote, no wonder John Hughes’ 1987 comedy immediately springs to mind, but it’s also arguably the best film from the mind that gave us Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Ad exec Neal (Steve Martin) tries desperately to get home to his family in Chicago for Thanksgiving, but all manner of transportation fails him for assorted reasons. This all starts with loud-mouthed traveling salesman Del (John Candy) inadvertently taking Neal’s cab. Through a series of misfortunes, the pair become traveling partners and, as with Midnight Run’s Jack and Duke, unlikely buddies.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Coen brothers’ 2000 comedy masterpiece sets Homer’s The Odyssey in rural Mississippi during the Great Depression. Prisoners Everett (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) escape from a chain gang to retrieve treasure Everett says he buried. While being chased, the trio encounter just about every cultural and historical touchstone that occurred during that era in the South. The American folk soundtrack produced by T Bone Burnett, who began working on the project while the Coens were still finishing their script, deservedly became a sensation all by itself.

Y Tu Mamá También. Photo courtesy Anhelo Producciones

Y Tu Mamá También (And Your Mother Too). Alfonso Cuarón’s 2001 erotic drama also has a journey set amid historical events—in this case, the rise of the opposition to 71 years of rule by Institutional Revolutionary Party presidents in Mexico. After finding out her husband cheated on her, Luisa (Maribel Verdú) goes on a road trip with his younger cousin Tenoch (Diego Luna), whose father is a high-ranking political official, and the teen boy’s pal Julio (Gael García Bernal), who hails from a leftist, middle-class family. Luisa seduces both along the way, which first leads to animosity between the teens and, later, a three-way. I’m next to positive this was the first thing I saw Luna and Bernal in, and both, along with Verdú and five-time Oscar winner Cuarón, went on to produce more amazing work after opening the world’s eyes to Mexican cinema.

A Night At the Opera. Four years after one of the funniest Marx Brothers screwball comedies (Monkey Business) was set on a transatlantic ocean liner bound for America, Groucho, Harpo and Chico wind up in a ship headed back to Europe in Sam Wood’s 1935 box-office smash that the National Film Registry preserved because it is “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” A Night At the Opera includes one of the most famous, memorable and hilarious scenes ever shot, as, one by one, nearly every cast member and extra fill Groucho’s closet-sized stateroom.

Road to Morocco. Monkey Business and A Night At the Opera featured most of its top stars playing stowaways, which are roles Bob Hope and Bing Crosby fill at the beginning of the third of their seven Road to . . . pictures. Orville (Hope) smoking in a powder room causes a freighter to explode, and he and his pal Jeff (Crosby) float alone on wreckage off the top tip of Africa, where they joke about eating each other before spotting land. They end up on camels bound for Morocco, where they each make plays at a princess (Dorothy Lamour) who is supposed to marry a sheik (Anthony Quinn). Hope and Crosby sing “(We’re Off on the) Road to Morocco” and are joined by Lamour and, if I am remembering correctly, one of the camels on “Moonlight Becomes You.”

Into the Wild. Photo courtesy Paramount Vantage

Into the Wild. And now for something completely different: producer/director/writer Sean Penn’s harrowing 2007 adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction book about Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a young man who makes a cross-country trip to live off the land in the wilds of Alaska. He believes he is totally prepared, which he totally is not. Despite knowing how Into the Wild was going to end, Hirsch’s excellent performance in Penn’s poignant character study (and one of the best American films of the decade) still had me rooting for McCandless.

Also rans: Dumb and Dumber; Thelma and Louise; Rain Man; Tommy Boy; Easy Rider; The Motorcycle Diaries; Bonnie and Clyde; It Happened One Night; National Lampoon’s Vacation; The Last Detail; Lost In Translation; Sideways; Nebraska; Old Joy; Badlands; Little Miss Sunshine; Blues Brothers; The Darjeeling Limited; Star Man; The Straight Story; The Puffy Chair; Wild; Wild At Heart; Something Wild; and The Wizard of Oz.

OC Weekly Editor-in-Chief Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the alternative newsweekly’s first calendar editor.

One Reply to “What Makes a Great Travel Movie? Complications”

  1. I know that this is a very picayune point, and that I will seem like a total (expletive deleted) for making it, but the Marx Brothers, while anarchic and screwy in the sense of reeling drunken-like through wild set pieces, did not make screwball comedies. Screwball comedies were wild and anarchic, but they were romantic comedies first and foremost. The Marx Brothers films often include a romance, but it is in no way the main point of the movie.

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