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Wednesday, March 21, 2007 10:30 pm

Family road rage

A long trip can bring out the worst in anyone

Untitled Document When movie families take to the road, they never have a good time. The trip usually brings out the worst behavior in everyone. The recent indie hit and Best Picture nominee Little Miss Sunshine is a shining example. Olive (Abigail Breslin) freaks out when she receives a call telling her that she has     qualified for the Little Miss Sunshine contest. Her entire family of argumentative and quirky individuals piles into a broken-down VW bus and heads off to the obscene pageant that exploits young girls. The filmmakers wisely mock this spectacle while creating a uniquely idiosyncratic movie family. All the performances are impeccable, and the    recurring image of the family pushing the  bus is one for the ages. Perhaps the quintessential road family is the Joads of The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Director John Ford took a break from Westerns to film John Steinbeck’s tale of a Depression-era family forced to leave the Dust Bowl to start a new life in California. Ford’s film version is more histrionic than  historic, relying too heavily on melodramatic speeches, and a bit more realism would   have been welcome. The bank-robbing exploits of Clyde (Warren Beatty) and Buck Barrow (Gene Hackman) and their women, Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) and Blanche (Estelle Parsons), were heavily fictionalized in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), but that didn’t hinder the impact of this groundbreaking film. Director Arthur Penn takes a darker and more satiric look at the Depression, and he turned the American cinema on its ear in the process. Bonnie and Clyde still ranks as one of the greatest films ever made. National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) moved the genre to its now-standard comedy format. Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) takes his family across the country to the Wally World theme park, encountering mishaps along the way. Chase is an expert at this brand of comedy. Why did his career collapse so quickly? Vacation is the best film to carry the National Lampoon moniker. More recently, in RV (2006), Robin Williams coerced his family to hit the road,    in a giant recreational vehicle, for a vacation to the Rockies. The humor relies heavily on slapstick, but every now and then a bit      generates a laugh. Flirting with Disaster (1996) was completely overlooked by the Oscars, but it remains the best comedy of its kind. Ben Stiller decides to find his birth parents, and he drags his family and a caseworker from the adoption agency along for the ride. Most comedies run out of gas long before the ending credits, but David O. Russell’s underrated gem gathers momentum as the journey progresses.

New on DVD this Tuesday (March 27): Happy Feet, The Pursuit of Happyness, Turistas, and Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj.
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