Robin Williams steps into Chevy Chase’s shoes and takes his reluctant family on a cross-country vacation in this comedy from director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men In Black). Jeff Daniels co-stars, as does teenage pop star JoJo. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.
“What does R.V. mean?”, asked a girl sitting a few rows behind me as the movie was about to start.
“It’s what the Americans call a caravan”, her friend explained.
“Yeah I know that”, the first girl replied, “but what does R.V. stand for?”
“I dunno. Something Vehicle.”
R.V. stands for Recreational Vehicle, folks, so now you know. Since most British moviegoers won’t know, R.V. has been given a subtitle by its UK distributor: Runaway Vacation. I suspect there was an ulterior motive behind this subtitle however. The distributor would like you to remember a certain series of popular Chevy Chase comedies.
The writer of this film, Geoff Rodkey, certainly remembers them. R.V. takes the premise of National Lampoon’s Vacation and upgrades it from a crappy, second-hand station wagon to a crappy, rented motor home. Robin Williams takes the Chevy Chase role, playing workaholic dad Bob Munro, who wants to bond with his family on a cross-country road trip to Colorado. Cheryl Hines, from the TV show Curb Your Enthusiasm, takes the Beverly D’Angelo role: the loving but long-suffering wife, in other words the straight-man part. The embarrassed teenage kids are played by pop star Joanna “JoJo” Levesque and Josh Hutcherson from Zathura.
This material wasn’t exactly sophisticated when John Hughes wrote Vacation more than 20 years ago but he and director Harold Ramis made it funny and subversive – a satire of the middle-American family. Some of the gags, like the fates of Aunt Edna and her dog, remain explosively funny after many viewings. Geoff Rodkey and slumming director Barry Sonnenfeld don’t even try for the same heights. They only want to make a dumb family comedy pitched at the same audience as Rodkey’s 2003 hit Daddy Day Care.
Even on that level, R.V. comes up short. It’s an inane and mostly laugh-less film that relies on pratfalls and toilet jokes for its humour. For a light family comedy, it’s also surprisingly mean-spirited. The teen daughter played by JoJo is supposed to have an attitude, like all teen daughters in dumb comedies, but this is way overdone and she comes off as a horrific little bitch. Instead of hoping she’ll reconcile with her dad, you’ll wonder why he doesn’t smack her. JoJo looks like a younger Lindsay Lohan but the role makes it impossible to tell if she has any of Lohan’s charm. She’ll be seen again later this month, hopefully to better effect, in the mermaid comedy, Aquamarine.
Even more unpleasant is the film’s treatment of the Gornickes, a Mid-western family who live in a trailer. The suburbanite Munros are appalled by the redneck Gornickes and they spend much of the film trying to avoid them. National Lampoon’s Vacation also got laughs at the expense of a white trash family (Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie and his brood) but they were written as specific, obnoxious characters – sponging lowlifes most rednecks would have avoided. The Gornickes are obviously nice people who are nothing but helpful and hospitable. Since R.V. doesn’t have the balls to let them display the redneck traits that embarrass American city dwellers most, like praising Jesus, bearing arms or supporting Bush, we can only assume the Munros don’t like them because they’re common. We’re supposed to laugh when Bob and his family speed off as soon as the Gornickes’ backs are turned but it just seems rather nasty.
Travis and Marie Jo Gornicke (Jeff Daniels and Kristin Chenoweth) are far more likeable and interesting than the Munros. I kept wishing the movie would forget about the suburbanites and follow their road trip instead. Daniels and Chenoweth get the most of the decent laughs in the film. Daniels was superb in April’s independent comedy The Squid And The Whale, doing a savage parody of a New York intellectual and he’d be as funny here as a Mid-west country boy if the script gave him room. His reaction to catching his son kissing a girl is a hoot. Broadway star Chenoweth is just as good. She deserves to go on to better things.
R.V. only adds insult to injury when the Munros inevitably realise they’ve been unfair and decide the Gornickes are worthy of their friendship after all. Can you imagine a film being made today in which a well-off family from the ‘burbs treated inner city folk this patronisingly? The Gornickes’ redemption happens after we’ve learned that Travis is an Ivy League graduate, Marie Jo earns $60,000 a year and their kids have both skipped grades. They’re rich and they have academic qualifications so they must be okay.
It’s ironic that the Munros should judge anyone on their intelligence considering most of the comedy in R.V. depends on Bob Munro being a complete moron. One running joke involves the vehicle’s parking brake not working. I lost count of how many times it rolls away. No one ever thinks of stopping and having it fixed. There’s a lengthy, unfunny and fairly disgusting scene in which Bob tries to stretch a hosepipe between his overflowing septic tank and a drain several feet away. No one thinks of moving the R.V. closer to the drain. In the predictable final scene, Bob gets offered something and instead of feeling happy for him, you’ll wonder why he didn’t think of asking for it.
Robin Williams can do little to redeem this rubbish. He can be a funny man but playing dumb has never been his forte. Chevy Chase deserves a lot more credit than he received at the time for his performance as Clark Griswold. It’s obviously not as easy as it looks. Witness Bill Murray failing to make a similar character work in The Man Who Knew Too Little. Robin Williams, like Murray, is funniest as a wisecracking smart-ass. His best scene here has him talking black to a group of teenagers, which doesn’t sound much like Bob Munro but is at least amusing.
As for director Barry Sonnenfeld, what can I say? He and cinematographer Fred Murphy make the film look great (it works as a tourism commercial for Utah and Colorado, if nothing else) but is this the best script he could find? Sonnenfeld’s career has been on a frightening downward spiral since his mid-nineties hat-trick of Addams Family Values, Get Shorty and Men In Black. R.V. isn’t quite as bad as his low point, Wild Wild West but at least that film had ambition, however misguided. It tried to be a steam-punk sci-fi-comedy-western and it failed. This one tries to be a bland family comedy that entertains kids with poo jokes and it still fails.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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