On the Road Again: How Road Trip Comedies Test Our Limits

Comedy Features Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
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On the Road Again: How Road Trip Comedies Test Our Limits

Let’s face it: road trips can be long and boring. You’re constantly pretending that you don’t have to pee right this second, fanning away farts (yours or someone else’s), and trying not to stare at Google Maps, which says you’re about to drive down the same stretch of highway for 200 more interminable miles. While psychologically and biologically stressful, these mundane realities do not make for very interesting road trip comedies. I delight in these movies because they reach so far in the opposite direction, experimenting with the liminality of traveling the open road, truly testing the boundaries of the age-old question: what’s the worst that can happen? Sometimes these experiments work, and sometimes they absolutely do not, but I believe they all showcase the fears, anxieties, and desires of the wanderlust-driven traveler.

It’s safe to say that road trip movies have been on my mind. I am writing this article from a hotel in Nashville, Tenn., becoming my fellow English degree holders’ wildest dreams. I am in the middle of my own cross-country road trip with my spouse, who luckily is a very low-maintenance road partner. Unlike protagonists in a road trip comedy, we are not two diametrically opposed figures who meet in an unfortunate happenstance, suddenly finding ourselves dependent on one another to reach our destination.

For example, in 2010’s Due Date, straight-laced professional Peter Highman (Robert Downey, Jr.) needs to get home to Los Angeles, where his pregnant wife is due to give birth very soon. After an airport run-in with Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifinakis), who uses a very poor choice of words including “terrorist” and “bomb” on a plane, Peter is placed on a No Fly List and has no choice but to drive with Ethan to LA. Ethan is on a mission of his own, planning to scatter his father’s ashes at the Grand Canyon. This plot may sound familiar because it is very similar to inciting incident of the quintessential road trip comedy, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, where uptight executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) begrudgingly embarks on a chaos-filled journey with Del Griffith (John Candy) to make it home to his family on Thanksgiving.

I’ve got a bone to pick with Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Undeniably, this movie laid the road trip comedy blueprint for decades to come. It is a screenplay worth studying and completely deserves its reputation as a classic slapstick comedy; however, Steve Martin does an almost too good of a job at making Neal Page unlikeable. Maybe this scene just aged poorly because the US economy hasn’t exactly been booming since 1987, but as a millennial who works in the service industry, I cringed my way through the scene where Neal eviscerates a rental car reservation agent and takes his frustrations out on her after walking to the airport when the shuttle left him stranded in a car lot. In addition, I understand there needs to be tension between two main characters—Del is an off-putting, yet lovable oaf who isn’t always exactly honest, but Neal is often just plain mean to him. The film’s attempts to humanize Neal via phone calls with his wife, but there’s no chemistry. She and the kids want him to come home; all he wants to do to get home, but it doesn’t even feel like he has ever met this woman, let alone married and had children with her. Neal’s wants are clear, but I didn’t feel like he had an emotional connection with them.

While road trip movies rely heavily on suspension of disbelief, at their core, they must maintain some sense of verisimilitude. Planes opens with Neal stuck in a boring unproductive meeting, nervous about missing his flight home, while his boss hems and haws over an ad layout. In 2022, who among us has not been stuck in a pointless meeting that should’ve been an email or Slack message? Imagine it’s Thanksgiving Eve, and you’re trying to catch an Uber to the airport before the primetime rates kick in! I’m getting riled up just thinking about it. Another that takes real life circumstances and turns them into comedy gold is Unpregnant, starring Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira. It is a hilarious and moving tale of two high school seniors’ quest from Missouri to New Mexico so one of them can have an abortion without parental consent. Veronica (Richardson) is a straight-A student, due to attend an Ivy League college in the fall, and she finds herself pregnant by her not-so-bright boyfriend Kevin (Alex MacNicoll), who aspires to be a BMX professional. After meticulously plotting the route, Veronica enlists her estranged childhood best friend, the rebellious Bailey (Ferreira), to accompany her on the 14-hour journey over a weekend so she can receive the procedure on a Monday morning.

Unfortunately, thousands of people find themselves in a similar situation, especially in a post Roe v. Wade America. Now, in the real world, those people most likely won’t be chauffeured to their appointment in a stretch limousine by Giancarlo Esposito, but that type of wackiness is how movies are able to add humor to the harrowing realities of everyday life. This coming-of-age tale successfully tackles the lack of abortion access while simultaneously telling the story of two young women finding each other again after growing apart. Who can’t relate to that?

As far as my quarter-life sojourn is concerned, my next stop is Arkansas, then Oklahoma. I’ll trudge through Texas and eventually, I’ll find myself relocated to southern California. While it sounds cheesy, I feel like the entire world, or at least the continental United States, is my oyster. High stakes and tight deadlines. Once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Flat tires and no vacancy signs. Anything can happen on the road, but one thing is for certain: in movies and life alike, the traveler is somehow changed at the end of a trip, for better or worse.

Britt Spruill is a writer and comedian. You can find her shouting into the void on Twitter at @britt_spruill.