It’s hard not to wax poetic on the eternal allure of the open road – radio up, bucket seats tilted back, black asphalt stretching into the hazy far-off and the window cracked just so for a deafening stream of breeze. And then you hear a backseat whine for a bathroom break and more griping against the radio station and a careless foot digging into the back of your seat, and you realize that it’s actually just the road you love and the trip itself you hate.
Most road movies will make sure to have one of those postcard Zen moments. But the majority of them, and certainly the most interesting, focus more on the inevitable conflict of any number of people squashed up against one another for hours at a time. Note: mere quest movies don’t count – thus the omission of such classic travelogues as “The Wizard of Oz” or any of “The Lord of the Rings.” The little boys of “Stand by Me” are also excluded for walking along rail-road tracks, as are dependable on-the-road westerns like “The Searchers” for moseying along on horseback. A real road trip movie needs a vehicle.
A real road movie also requires the trip itself to serve as overarching theme. With that qualification, only honorable mention can go to “Tommy Boy” and “To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” (John Leguizamo and Wesley Snipes in strikingly convincing drag), both of which feature their fair share of priceless on-the-road sequences – David Spade and Chris Farley shamelessly belting The Carpenters, for instance. But their action is ultimately too localized to merit top-tier road movie status, and that echelon has already been decided upon. Envelope, please:
The story is famous for reasons entirely its own, but what few remember about the book, and the underappreciated film versions of it, is that this is essentially a story of two people on a fitfully clandestine road trip, dodging an unnamed watcher along the way. Get the notorious 1997 version by Adrian Lyne, starring Jeremy Irons and a young Dominique Swain in the title role. Kubrick’s earlier adaptation may have raised eyebrows, but Lyne – the king of sexual melodrama (“Unfaithful,” “9 1/2 Weeks”) – rendered his version so explicitly that no American distributor would touch it, and here more than ever the open road is the bearer of Humbert Humbert aberrant deeds. The winding highways are the film’s playground, the characters’ hide-out and ultimately their witness.
“Thelma & Louise” (1991)
Ridley Scott’s post-feminist chronicle of the enduring bond between two women on the run from the police is the poster child of the modern road movie, a filmic photo essay of the American southwest. With Susan Sarandon and Genna Davis in the leads and the scenery filling out the supporting roles (sorry Brad Pitt), the film is a love letter to the rustic beauty of a less-known America and friendship as few ever come to know it. The last scene, a jaw-dropping descent into the Grand Canyon, is among the great cinematic finales ever filmed.
“My Own Private Idaho” (1991)
On their most superficial level, road movies are about escape, and no one needs to escape more than the sorry heroes of Gus Van Sant’s wandering masterpiece of disillusioned youth, “My Own Private Idaho.” River Phoenix (in his best sceen role) and Keanu Reeves star as Pacific Northwest hustlers looking for everything and nothing all at once. They travel against majestic backdrops quoting Shakespeare and occasionally having sex, the end of the road and perhaps the end of their lives the only thing that could stop them. The film exists, and never quite finds its way out of it. The final line: “I’m a connoisseur of roads. I’ve been tasting roads my whole life. This road will never end. It probably goes all around the world.”
“Everything is Illuminated” (2005)
A sweet-natured fable that hijacks the conventions of the road movie and groups people who don’t know each other, “Everything is Illuminated” has its destination in mind by has no idea how to get there. Directed by Liev Schreiber and starring Elijah Wood, the modest-minded film is a tale of self-discovery as vibrant as it is thematically understated.
“Y tu mamá tambi