Nat (Tony Revolori) is a teen on the cusp of adulthood with very little knowledge of how the world really works. In the opening moments, we watch Nat pack his belongings into a van and wave goodbye to his parents so that he can travel the United States alone on his way to art school in Los Angeles. His goal is to see the “real America,” and in the process to capture the lives of working people who understand something about existence that up til now has escaped him through photography. It’s the kind of grand, yet vague goal that informs the viewer he’s still figuring himself out as much as he is existence, but before that journey can get too far underway his van breaks fan.
Enter Richard (Jason Mantzoukas). The polar opposite of Nat, Richard is a recently unemployed mechanic in his forties who can’t seem to get out of his own way. He’s failed at everything in life, from friendships to romance, but he possesses that intangible quality of likability that makes you root for him nonetheless. After fixing Nat’s van for free, Richard requests a ride, and soon the two begin their journey together across the Southwestern United States.
At this point, The Long Dumb Road has all the qualities of any road trip film. There is a simple goal, an unlikely pairing of personalities, and a whole lot of room for hijinks. Richard expounds on life, or what he thinks life should be, as Nat tries to present reason while doing his best not to shatter the hopes of his new friend. Nat’s optimism leads him to try and help Richard, but Richard’s problems are far more complicated than they initially appear. Richard, in turn, tries to do the same for Nat, but his callous outlook on the world is less than desirable.
Everything about The Long Dumb Road relies on the likability of Revolori and Mantzoukas, who commit to the straight man and the comic routine to the best of their abilities. Nat is the anchor to reality, while Richard often seems as if he just arrived on this planet shortly before the story began. As the hours turn to days, the duo finds themselves caught in increasingly awkward situations, including hookups with sisters, run-ins with old flames, and even a crime or two. Each encounter pushes the leads apart as much as it reaffirms the idea they are the only thing either one has to cling to in the middle of nowhere.
Few things about The Long Dumb Road are revolutionary, but the underlying lesson is unique. Though never said explicitly, the film does seem to argue that we are all alone, even if we find ourselves tethered to another soul from time to time. Nat and Richard do not know each other when the story begins, and at no point along this unforgettable ride do they attempt to be anything more than two lost souls in close proximity to one another. Their problems are not the same, nor is their pain, yet they find common ground as wanderers. Eventually, everything must end, and when that happens life carries on. The experiences along the way either make us into the people we want to become, or they break us, but either way, we are irrevocably changed by each person we meet.
If that sounds like a down, let me assure there are many laughs to be hard. Life can be hard, but once we accept that fact we often learn it’s quite funny as well. Mileage on The Long Dumb Road will vary for those who only wish to see utterly original films, but those able to appreciate old ideas made new again will find plenty to enjoy on this trip.