Filmmaker Hannah Fidell knows how to pick ’em. Just four features into her career, the writer-director has consistently demonstrated her ability to not only write juicy roles for compelling two-handers, but also to cast the damn things with the best possible people. Her breakthrough feature, the unnerving (and nervy) drama “A Teacher” was elevated by her casting of Lindsay Burdge (who starred in her debut, “We’re Glad You’re Here”) and Will Brittain as a teacher and student locked in a deeply unhealthy (and illegal) relationship. She followed that with a time-spanning relationship drama of a different stripe, the stirring “6 Years,” which followed Taissa Farmiga and Ben Rosenfeld as a young couple at different stages of their romance.
So while it may come as a surprise to some that Fidell opted to craft a road trip comedy starring a pair of dudes for her latest film, “The Long Dumb Road.” However, as another two-hander that boasts truly inspired casting as its best element, it has far more in common with her previous features than something like “Due Date” or “Sideways” (though there’s shades of films like that in here, too).
Starring Jason Mantzoukas and Tony Revolori as a pair of mismatched strangers who join up during a particularly ill-fated road trip across the American Southwest, “The Long Dumb Road” makes an early case for Fidell’s ability to build an entire feature around one central relationship, no matter the genre or the type of relationship on display. But while Mantzoukas and Revolori charm – consider them your new, unexpected go-to buddy comedy duo – “The Long Dumb Road” soon runs out of gas, chugging through a series of increasingly unbelievable contrivances.
Bound for Los Angeles and the promise of art school, Nat (Revolori) sets out from his familiar suburban home in his family’s hand-me-down minivan, eager to spend his time photographing “the heart of real America” (read: lots of pictures of strip-mall chain restaurants) while zipping toward his bright future. First lesson: Don’t rely on a hand-me-down minivan to take you thousands of miles across the country. Through a combination of happenstance and just plain bad luck, Nat breaks down in the middle of nowhere and his path crosses with Richard (Mantzoukas), who has just been fired from his job as a mechanic. They both need something from the other, and so Nat and Richard saddle up and set off across Texas, a journey made all the more enjoyable thanks to Keegan DeWitt’s plucky, swinging score.
Their bonding is initially uneasy; it’s impossible to shake the sense that Richard is some kind of grifter, albeit one given tremendous heart by the squeaky-voiced Mantzoukas and his uncanny ability to make just about anything funny. The road trip movie offers up plenty of chances for Serious Talks, and Nat and Richard soon start sharing a tremendous amount of personal information. Those entry points don’t immediately lead to deeper levels of understanding, but instead devolve into excuses to stage out-there set pieces (and for each character to deliver their motivations in a minimum of time).
Richard is a little obsessed with the generation gap between the pair, and spending all that time in close quarters with a kid who seems to be making all the right choices — something Richard clearly never did — sparks a desire to return to his own past, specifically the girl who got away. An unannounced visit to her home further draws lines between Richard and Nat’s future, and Fidell ably minds the pure awkwardness of the encounter (bolstered by Casey Wilson as Richard’s former flame, turning in a short-lived but lovely dramatic performance) for both humor and pathos, but future wacky situations won’t emerge looking so rosy.
Despite the built-in engine of “The Long Dumb Road” — literally; this is a road trip movie, after all — the film’s second half struggles to find anything resembling direction. Nat and Richard skitter and stall around New Mexico, plunging into situations that run the gamut from unlikely to outrageous. And while many of them are aided by the appearance of a few welcome faces, including Farmiga, Grace Gummer, Ron Livingston, and Pamela Reed (who turns in the film’s most hilarious sequence), it’s hard to shake the sense that each new contrivance is only happening because something, anything needs to keep the film moving.
The best way to keep it ticking along: back to Fidell-style basics, and handing the keys back over to the very able Mantzoukas and Revolori.
“The Long Dumb Road” premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.