In American cinema, the road has become equal parts a symbol for individualism (or alienation) and a stage for dramas of bonding and maturing. It’s a suitable setting for stories about self-realization because, at least in this country, many formative experiences and rites of passage really are centered around the road. Then, of course, there are the road movies that are mostly about dick jokes, with more or less artfully tacked-on morals about coupling or coming of age (think Dumb and Dumber or Road Trip). Director and co-writer Hannah Fidell’s The Long Dumb Road is pulled in both directions, never finding the right mix of meaningful parable and sophomoric romp.
In the film, 19-year-old Nat (Tony Revolori) has set out on a trip in his hand-me-down minivan across the country to Los Angeles, where he’s to begin his first semester of art school. When his car breaks down in Texas, he crosses paths with Richard (Jason Mantzoukas), a flamboyantly sleazy auto mechanic who’s just lost his job and asks Nat for a ride in exchange for fixing the car. Richard increasingly insinuates himself into Nat’s good graces—Nat, for his part, is clearly happy to have someone aboard who can buy him alcohol—and the two embark on the road-movie genre’s archetypical picaresque adventure.
At times, the depiction of the highway in the film evokes the emptiness and artificiality of its complexes of gas stations, cheap restaurants, and motels. It’s the ideal backdrop for the droll comedy that Fidell seems, at times, to want to achieve. But The Long Dumb Road’s detached indie-comedy vibe is at odds with Mantzoukas’s Richard, a braggadocious loser whose outrageousness is dialed up a few notches too high. He’s little more than a grab-bag of antisocial traits, which don’t cohere into a psychologically believable whole.
Mantzoukas’s trademark scuminess suits the heightened comedy of Parks and Recreation and Big Mouth. In The Long Dumb Road, however, his outbursts into exaggerated displays of man-childishness create a weird tonal clash. When Richard, in all seriousness, proposes to a woman (Grace Gummer) he’s just met, using a ring acquired from one of those quarter-run dispensers you find at gas stations, we’re meant to laugh at his ludicrousness. But Richard’s severe ignorance of social norms and how other people see him comes off not as a humorous display of arrested development, but as a possible symptom of some serious mental illness—or perhaps a convenient contrivance to end the scene with an uncomfortable confrontation. Characters’ reactions to such hijinks also sometimes feel a bit off, as when Nat and Richard show up at the house of the high school girlfriend Richard hasn’t seen or spoken to in 20 years, and she merrily invites in the stranger and the unwashed stalker.
Alongside Manzoukas, Revolori plays the straight man who’s also the ostensible main character, similar to his role in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Here, though, he has a bit more to do as an actor, portraying a character with a wider range of emotions and desires. The teenaged Nat is dorky and a bit naïve but not absurdly so. Toward the beginning of the film, his youthful ignorance of the world intersects with Richard’s willful anarchism in potentially interesting and even funny ways. But these two characters, one something like a real human being and the other a broad caricature, turn out to be manifestations of the film’s inability to settle on a coherent tone.