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RV

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/27/06 22:46:49

"You see, it's funny because it's got poop in it."
1 stars (Sucks)

“RV” is “National Lampoon’s Vacation” for people who loved “Flubber.”

The film is about as dumbed-down as dumbed-down can get, which makes it all the more surprising to learn that it comes from Barry Sonnenfeld, the director of “Get Shorty” and the “Men In Black” and “Addams Family” movies. Even Sonnenfeld’s misfires (“Wild Wild West,” “Big Trouble,” “Men In Black II”) had a certain off-center quality about them, while his early work as cinematographer (most notable among them are “Raising Arizona,” “Three O’Clock High,” and “Miller’s Crossing”) and later work as a television producer (the “Fantasy Island” upgrade, the live action “The Tick”) found exciting ways to push boundaries.

“RV,” meanwhile, is about as subversive and daring as a bowl of tomato soup. Not even the director’s closest visit to the mainstream, the underappreciated but wholly predictable charmer “For Love or Money,” was so crushingly mediocre.

The film is the story of a middle-aged father whose hopes of bringing his family closer are dashed when work forces him to cancel their vacation to Hawaii. Instead he must head to Colorado for a sales meeting, and the father schemes to turn the trip into a replacement vacation. He rents a motor home and plans to take the scenic route across the nation. And wouldn’t you know it - by the time the closing credits roll, the family is indeed closer, wiser, and happier than ever.

Now, the reason “Vacation” worked was because there’s so much comedy to be had in cramming a family together in such a tight space for such a long time. Even when that movie went unbelievably kooky, it was always based in some way on the simple notion that all vacations inherently go off the mark somewhere. Surely a comedy based on family trips can rely on the simplicity of common experiences. Why, then, must “RV” spend its time forcing so many wrong notes?

Example: The father, for reasons known only to the screenwriter, decides to keep the entire reason for the trip a secret from his family, and the vacation a secret from his boss. He does not tell them about the big sales meeting or the presentation he must put together, and he tells his boss he’s too sick to come into work. And so we get several scenes of the father sneaking out in the middle of the night to work on his laptop (which he must keep hidden from his wife) or his cell phone (which I thought he was also hiding but later scenes suggest not). Later in the film we get scenes of the father frantically rushing back and forth between business meeting and campsite, hoping that neither family or coworkers will discover his rouse. And, of course, we get the obligatory scene where the wife finds out about her husband’s deceit, and they must fight, only to reunite by film’s end. And, of course, we cap all this off with a big speech the father makes to a crowd, in which he slowly details all the big lessons learned on his adventure. And then that’s capped off with his snooty, germophobic boss getting some sort of comeuppance, which in this case involves getting tackled by a big, drooling dog.

Is any of this necessary? Not one bit. The whole thing smacks of laziness - no surprise, then, as “RV” has been written by Geoff Rodkey, author of “Daddy Day Care” and the Tim Allen remake of “The Shaggy Dog.” Lazy cheats seem to be Rodkey’s forte. He has created this subplot as an easy out for himself; whenever he backs himself into a corner story-wise, he can pull the top-secret sales meeting out of his back pocket and drop it into the plot.

The sitcom feel of the story is punctuated when we meet the one-dimensional characters: mom’s a loving but clueless housewife; daughter’s a rebellious punk; young son’s a rap-obsessed smart-aleck. This is the Generic Family, bussed in from every other family comedy that lacks invention.

Ah, and then we come to the heart of the film: the sight gags. “RV” goes for the lamest of yuks, the highlight of which involves a geyser of liquefied feces. I am sure that there is a way to work a scene involving a jet of human waste that shoots fifty feet up into the air and then comes crashing down on top of a main character, but alas, not even Sonnenfeld can add even the tiniest spark.

It seems that the director has put himself on autopilot here, providing none of his trademark visual flair, allowing the low-rent screenplay to take command. This is a shame, because the last thing we needed were more scenes of, say, dad on an out-of-control bicycle that flies off a cliff in slo-mo, highlighted by comical screams from the actor. There’s also a sequence in which the entire family winds up swooshing down a muddy hill in a makeshift waterslide during a rainstorm. It’s this scene above all else that best sums up the film: it’s cheap, it’s easy, it goes on for far too long, and it makes not a lick of sense. Where’s the Sonnenfeld sense of mischief?

The star of the film, for those that did not know, is Robin Williams. And not Good Robin Williams, he of such career-redeeming works as “One Hour Photo,” but Bad Robin Williams, the mugging, uncontainable, tiresome star of “Father’s Day,” “House of D,” and the upcoming “Mrs. Doubtfire 2.” Even the most devout Williams fans will have a hard time making it through such groan-worthy moments as the (presumably ad-libbed) bit where he spews “hilariously” faux hip-hop slang for what seems like hours (but is, in fact, only a minute or two).

The co-stars hired as Williams’ movie family (including Cheryl Hines as the wife and a teen pop star named “JoJo” who seems to have been hired merely for her passing resemblance to Lindsay Lohan) offer no relief, thanks to inadequately sketched characters and an overwhelming lack of humorous material. Oh, the countless opportunities missed for solid comedy.

To get an idea of where this film could have gone, just watch Jeff Daniels and Kristin Chenoweth, who play the heads of a freakishly friendly white trash family that our heroes keep encountering. While the screenplay fails to give these characters anything remotely funny (or even interesting) to do, there’s something about Daniels’ and Chenoweth’s over-the-top aw-shucks performances that hint at just how deliciously oddball this comedy could have been had someone smarter and more daring been in charge of the script, and had Sonnenfeld not fallen asleep at the wheel. All we get are weak redneck jokes (capped with the cop-out punchline that they’re actually very smart, very likable folks), and the missed opportunities are a downright shame.

So what was Sonnenfeld thinking when he agreed to churn out this consistently unfunny, uninspired dud? Maybe he was looking for a safe way to recover from the flops of his last three films, a way to prove that he can deliver a box office hit again. This is all speculation, of course - but judging from the embarrassing amount of raucous laughter that came from the audience of the preview I attended, “RV” seems to be an easy popular success, just enough to make Sonnenfald bankable again. Here’s a zero effort Robin Williams stinker that just enough liquid-poo-joke-loving people will eat up to help put him back on track. Unless, of course, that reasonable people will outnumber the easily amused. Which is pretty doubtful - people sure do love their liquid poo.

An unrelated postscript: Can anyone out there explain to me why composer James Newton Howard was continuously quoting heavily from Ennio Morricone’s theme to “Once Upon a Time In the West” in the musical score? Is there some connection between “RV” and Sergio Leone’s classic western that I didn’t get? Is this just one of those weird things that will remain a mystery forever? Or is it just some goofy coincidence?

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