Living in New Orleans sometimes means leaving it. That's why, with Hurricane Isaac bearing down on the city, I hit the highway last Monday for an extended Florida sojourn. And since a film buff's road trip is nothing without a screening schedule, here's a handy guide to movies for your next evacuation.
Day 1: Packing Light
Not knowing when you'll be home next is a strange feeling, one poignantly captured by Jason Reitman's recession-ready "Up in the Air": George Clooney's corporate layoff specialist, in life as in travel, carries only the bare necessities. Only another stone-cold itinerant (Vera Farmiga) breaks through his easy, shallow charm, to reveal a man whose suitcase is as full as the rest of us.
Day 2: Radio Waves
Spending hours in the car, the stations cycling through with each passing metropolis, leads to some unexpected recurrences. To wit: Joan Rivers hawking some new product, making a casino appearance, giving an interview to Terry Gross. It called to mind one of my favorite documentaries in recent years, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," an unflinching and hilarious portrait of the legendary comedienne's work ethic and bad manners. Plenty of films get at the electricity of performance, but few reveal so adeptly the backstage trials from which humor is born.
Day 3: Roughing It
The cabin I stayed in for the first few days of the trip wasn't quite a boxcar, but it made me think of Preston Sturges' classic comedy "Sullivan's Travels" (1941), about a director of shallow Hollywood comedies (Joel McCrea) who plays hobo as research for his new project, a socially conscious realist drama. Sturges' film has all of the usual wit — McCrea's character keeps ending up back in Hollywood no matter how hard he tries to play pretend — but I love it for its caustic, shadowy side. Sullivan wants to "know trouble," he tells his love interest (a sultry Veronica Lake). "I know fifty times more about trouble," she replies, "than you ever will."
Day 4: Main Street, USA
Main Street in High Springs, Florida, a town of about 5,000, isn't much more than a few stores, a restaurant, and The Coffee Clutch, the kind of place where old friends gather to read the paper and shoot the shit over tuna salad on rye. "Diner," Barry Levinson's lovely 1982 film about a group of high school buddies reunited for a wedding, takes up these small-town rhythms effortlessly — its episodic structure and the cast's natural camaraderie never force a story onto what is really just a crossroads. You can picture the quintet getting together again forty years on, looking back on how their lives have changed.
Day 5: Bright Lights, Big City
Miami is about as far as you can get from High Springs, architecturally speaking. Its wide boulevards, skyscraping palms, and flashes of neon are all L.A. In fact, the bruised blues and wan oranges of the modern city's dangerous, immense nights are practically the fabric of Michael Mann's terrific "Collateral," a Jamie Foxx-Tom Cruise action film with seedy dealings at its core. Foxx's performance as a beleaguered cabbie may be his best work, wavering with increasing unease, but it's Mann's Los Angeles, a flicker of street lamps, headlights, office fluorescents, and nightclub spots, that is so exhilarating and chaotic.
Day 6: The Road Home
The drive from Miami to New Orleans is 14 hours, give or take a few miles of parking-lot traffic near Mobile, and nothing (well, other than a stiff neck) made me wish I was home more than the sweet, folksy wisdom of "A Prairie Home Companion." Likewise, the late Robert Altman's film adaptation is cozy and elegiac — a bit slight in comparison with his other big-cast movies, perhaps, but full of life nonetheless (even Lindsay Lohan is good). Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep, as a crooning sister act by turns funny and regretful, provide the film's backbone with a gorgeous rendition of "My Minnesota Home," as though willing you back after a long time away.