A road-trip movie that merges a coming-of-age story with some serious arrested development.
Paths converge in indie dramedy The Long Dumb Road, a road-trip movie that merges a coming-of-age story with some serious arrested development. Directed by Hannah Fidell, who co-wrote the script with Carson Mell, the film traffics in the well-worn tropes of these aforementioned subgenres, and yet it works as well as it does due to the compelling performances and natural chemistry—and odd-couple discord—between its two infectious leads.
As Nat (Tony Revolori) sets off from his upper middle-class Texas home with his sights set on SoCal and his freshman year of art school, his clunky minivan has other ideas. In search of a mechanic, Nat happens upon the mercurial Richard (Jason Mantzoukas), who’s in the middle of parting ways with his employment at an auto repair shop in spectacular fashion. Richard, a brash man-child if there ever was one, fixes Nat’s ride and ends up tagging along, setting the stage for the kind of camaraderie, conflict and introspection that seems inevitable when film characters trek down long, sleepy stretches of flyover-country highway.
Predictably, the grizzled Richard—who claims at one point to be 35 while later implying he’s at least 40—offers life advice to the receptive Nat, encouraging the naïve, relatively uptight kid to actually live a little. Richard’s aimless, seat-of-his-pants existence and destitute financial situation do little to deflate his cocksure attitude, at least on the surface. He’s the kind of guy who will sucker-punch a macho cowboy type in a bar and not think twice about it. But as his bummed ride with Nat stretches into days—during which time he gulps beers and hits joints in the passenger seat while rambling on endlessly—he begins to reminisce about his own youth, revealing a host of insecurities and regrets in the process.
Like the characters in virtually all road-trip movies, the mismatched pair stumbles into a series of chance encounters and misadventures. Nat talks Richard into stopping in New Mexico to pop in on an old flame (Casey Wilson) that he’s obsessed over for two decades, with cringe-worthy results. Stuck in a jam, Richard calls upon a badass friend of his (Ron Livingston), only to find the former miscreant driving a Prius with a baby in the backseat. Nat and Richard make a serendipitous connection with a pair of sisters (Taissa Farmiga and Grace Gummer) in a similar situation to theirs, but Richard’s delusions and volatility cause things to inevitably go awry.
When situations take chaotic turns, the root of the problem is almost always Richard’s instability, and yet the film refuses to develop the story further than that. Nat makes a few failed attempts to ditch Richard, who increasingly becomes a liability. But on the whole, Richard seems to be right when he accuses Nat—who is virtually always toting an old-school film camera to capture snapshots of Americana he finds interesting—of merely keeping him company so he’ll have a story to tell at college. By the time the two men part ways, neither has really learned all that much, and the film seems content to merely exist as a blurry series of relatively humorous, semi-interesting pit stops on a road to nowhere.