By Joe Shelton
The Long Dumb Road treads one of the most trodden trails in American movies: the one where two mismatched travelers find themselves thrown together and, ostensibly, learn something from one another. The best-loved examples are probably Planes, Trains and Automobiles, or if you’re an antiquarian, It Happened One Night. Maybe the Road To movies as well, although I don’t think that Hope or Crosby ever learned anything from each other or they would have stopped taking trips together. But then, there must be something to the genre’s simple pleasures, or we wouldn’t embark on these road trips so often, either.
But because it’s the sort of thing that we’ve seen so many times before, there are certain things we can pretty safely expect from that sort of movie: a cathartic bar fight imparts a lesson about toughness, a fish-out-of-water misunderstanding (the catalyst, perhaps, for the bar fight), the inevitable screaming fight when our protagonists’ comic friction begins to chafe, etc. The Long Dumb Road gamely obliges all of those clichés, and more.
So the saving grace for Dumb Road is that not one other movie in the long history of the buddy road comedy has Jason Mantzoukas for a co-star. The underappreciated comic actor, best known for playing manic oddballs, is consistently terrific. He brings some much needed unpredictability to the formula.
Richard is contrasted with Nat (Tony Revolori, the bellhop in Grand Budapest Hotel), the sheltered child of an upper middle class family who is making a solitary road trip from Arizona to an art school in LA. Along the way his car breaks down. Forty-something Richard (Mantzoukas), a mechanic who has just been fired for some unmentioned gaffe, is happy to fix it in exchange for a forty-five minute drive up the road. Forty-five minutes, of course, becomes days. Richard is crude but helpful, possibly insane but oh-so authentic. After a few shots of whiskey on the first night, Nat rhapsodizes that Richard is “one of the realest people I’ve ever met!”
Luckily for the narrative, Richard is also big trouble. He proposes to a younger woman after a one night stand, just a few hours after visiting the home of a high school flame and suggesting she leave her husband and family for him. He drinks constantly, and rolls joints so often and so handily that you begin to wonder where a guy on the road, with no luggage to speak of, can keep such a big stash. Mantzoukas’s performance makes the character a fascinating question mark, vaguely dangerous without ever turning into, say, a Rutger Hauer-style hitcher. Plus, he’s very, very funny.
If it weren’t for Mantzoukas, The Long Dumb Road would still be a fitfully interesting example of the road movie. None of its plot points stick long in the mind. But somehow, the image of Mantzoukas, hair disarranged around his head like some sort of diabolical halo, shouting a stream of profanity, well, that’s hard to forget.