Forgotten Films is a semi-regular feature on Film Junk where we explore interesting movies that have fallen off the radar or slipped through the cracks over the years.
With the release of Greg Mottola’s Adventureland on DVD this week, I thought I should finally get around to writing something about his very first feature film, the often overlooked The Daytrippers. When Adventureland hit theatres back in April, critics seemed very receptive to it, but a lot of moviegoers came away confused because they had been expecting another Superbad. To be fair, Superbad was Mottola’s only well-known film, and the marketing for Adventureland did indeed play on that fact. But if you look at Greg Mottola’s background as a filmmaker, you’ll see that he isn’t just another teen comedy guy. The reason why he fits so well within Judd Apatow’s crew is because he favours relatable, character-driven films that have an emotional core. And that’s exactly what The Daytrippers is… except that it’s not about teenagers.
The movie is about a married couple who are living a seemingly mundane life in the suburbs of New York. When Eliza stumbles across a strange love note behind her husband’s dresser, she is dismayed and unsure what to do. Is he cheating on her? After going to her parents for advice, she soon finds herself piling into a station wagon with her parents, her sister Jo, and her sister’s boyfriend Carl, destined for Manhattan in order to confront Louis at work. It turns into quite a hectic and unpredictable drive, with plenty of mishaps along the way, and in the end many relationships are put to the test and all the people involved learn something new about each other.
The Daytrippers has a solid cast that includes Stanley Tucci, Hope Davis, Parker Posey and Liev Shrieber. Based on those names alone, I’m a bit surprised that more people haven’t heard of this movie, although I realize that none of them are really big “stars” and continue to make a living primarily from indie films and supporting roles. The performances are all excellent on an individual basis, but it is the interaction between them that make it something special. For instance, Liev Shrieber plays Carl, the boyfriend of Jo (Parker Posey), who is an aspiring novelist. He wants to impress Jo’s family, but whenever he starts to share his pretentious opinions and ideas, you can’t help but wince (and laugh). Anne Meara plays Eliza’s overbearing mother to perfection, meanwhile the tension between Eliza and Jo that slowly builds is totally believable.
What I love most about this movie is that group car trips really do tend to bring out strange truths and exciting adventures. Just keep in mind that it’s a fairly low key film, and if you sit there waiting for something massive to happen, you’ll probably miss what’s really going on. Just like with Adventureland, there are no big punchlines or pratfalls, just a lot of subtle comedy that comes from the authenticity of everything on screen.
By his own words, when Mottola first started making movies, he was aiming to be more of an auteur, an art house type of guy who occasionally did a few mainstream Hollywood flicks as well. It just so happens, he had the perfect mentor for this kind of career, as Steven Soderbergh co-produced the movie and actually came to the set every day. The movie was shot for $30,000 over two weeks, and at times it almost feels like a student film, but yet, it is also surprisingly mature, and a bit darker than you might expect.
It won the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance, which was a bit of redemption after the movie failed to make the cut for Sundance. Eventually, it also went on to play at Cannes and scored a distribution deal with Columbia TriStar. It barely got a theatrical release though, and to this day, remains largely unknown.
I will admit that the movie does feel a bit dated, 13 years later, and the twist ending plays as slightly cliched at this point (maybe it did back then too), but the key elements of the film still hold up. I also get a bit of a Seinfeld vibe from The Daytrippers, which kind of makes sense considering that it was released in 1996, right at the height of Seinfeld’s popularity. (Then again, it could just be the New York setting, odd predicaments and the dysfunctional family dynamic.)
Either way, with Greg Mottola quickly gaining a following, I think The Daytrippers is due to be rediscovered soon. The DVD was out of print for a while and ridiculously hard to find, although it looks like Amazon currently has copies in stock and now offers Video on Demand as well. Unfortunately, I think the only version that exists right now is a full frame pan and scan cut. There was talk at one point that Sony was contemplating a re-issue, so hopefully they follow through on that. The ironic thing is that we all know the DVD cover will boldly proclaim it to be “From the Director of Superbad!” Well, I guess sometimes you just can’t escape your past.