Friday, May 25, 2018
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Movie review: RV ***

The press book for the new comedy RV features a couple of pages of fun facts about recreational vehicles. These come at the end of the notes almost as afterthought:

There are 7.2 million RVs on the road at any given time, but more than 8 million households with RVs, which suggests many are rusting. Recently, RV was the most searched-for item on eBay; I assumed it was the Chicago man who sold his soul on the popular auction site (true story), but there you go. RVs come in two formats: towed or motorized. The typical RV owner is 49, makes $68,000 a year, and though Jeff Daniels does not fit that description (he s 51), the actor drove his own personal RV from his home in Chelsea, Mich., to the Canadian movie set of RV.

To those facts, I d like to add:

• Watching RV, I was struck with the realization that here was the movie of the future. With audiences whining about remakes, here is the solution: We don t remake old movies but retool them to fit a new demographic group.

What we have here is National Lampoon s Vacation stripped of swearing and geared for the RV-family vacation demographic, a narrow constituency, but more widely appealing than The Hills Have Eyes, which (though a remake itself) is sort of Vacation for the sadomasochistic demo.

Think of RV as The Hills Have Eyes without mass murder, more heartwarming reminders of family, and a handful of funny sight gags, though both feature a family trip that goes wrong and, in the words of an RV character, winds up in the location where NASA faked the moon landing.

• Robin Williams is over.

Once a steamrolling force of nature, he s grown so withdrawn on-screen, his frantic father is even more meek than Steve Martin s frantic father; and so it s the supporting roles in RV that sing, particularly Curb Your Enthusiasm s Cheryl Hines (as his wife, very funny), pop star JoJo (as his daughter, very sarcastic). Any one actor makes more impression than Williams in the lead, reconnecting with his family on a trip, launching into those old speed-improvisations, and resorting at one point to sock puppets and ancient Sylvester Stallone impersonations.

If audiences get hostile about the aggressively genial Williams, it s because every Williams film inevitably becomes a Williams vehicle. He is not a supporting player, so when the movie is an ensemble like RV (vicarious fun whenever his schtick isn t front-and-center), resentment sets in.

• RV contracts wrong-family disease. This is a malady unique to comedies: If a mediocre comedy is about a relatively normal family, inevitably the crazier family they meet will be more fun to hang with (though we re forced to tag along with the clan the studio assumes we ll relate to better).

This is a failure of imagination: Jeff Daniels and Kristen Chenoweth (the pixieish actress of Broadway s Wicked), as the dementedly upbeat heads of a Partridge-like household, steal RV wholesale.

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, many of the gags in the film are predicated on reactions: deadpan, dumbfounded, etc. Daniels and Chenoweth, ridiculously charming, go for broke and decide to be funny themselves, a much riskier proposition they sing, dance, thrust their noses in Sonnenfeld s fish-eye lens, exhibit the rare combination of obliviousness and intelligence that makes the broadest comedies bounce. When Chenoweth asks Do you want to hear about the time Jesus saved us from a tornado? the funny thing is, we really do.

• Sonnenfeld, the director of Get Shorty and Men in Black, must be a lonely man. RV owners aside, he may be the last Hollywood director not interested in tailoring a comedy to a niche. He s a funny face guy, a guy who thinks funny hats are funny. He goes high and low but mostly sticks to the middle. His jokes are too broad to land with consistency, which is what s nice about him.

Williams family takes a trip because they re watching four TVs in separate rooms and IM ing each other that dinner is ready. Another character pines for the day when the entire country fell in love with the same song, film, TV show.

RV may be a mediocre family comedy but it s serious.

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