R.V. will probably be ripped to shreds by all the usual critical suspects before it hits theaters. This is after all a comedy starring Robin Williams and there’s nothing the average cranky critic likes better than tearing to pieces Robin’s blisteringly strange style of speed humor. If that happens, it’ll be a shame since Williams, despite those knocks, is still pretty funny and R.V., for what it is, is unexpectedly good.
We’ve seen more than a few of these family road trip comedies in recent years. Almost every one of them has been nothing more than a blatant Family Vacation rip-off. While R.V. tries (and sometimes even succeeds) to recapture the spirit of those Vacation movies, it has its own ideas about how to do that.
It does it with a sometimes strange mix of surreal comedy, family values, and Robin Williams suffering. Williams takes on a role much like Chevy’s in Family Vacation, but because he’s such a completely different comedic talent the kinds of torture heaped upon him feel very skewed from the way Chevy would have handled it. It’s really Robin that makes R.V. a different movie from those others. He really had no choice, he’s never been that great at prat falls.
The film’s plot is pretty simple. A dysfunctional Dad decides to cancel his family’s Hawaii vacation and force his equally dysfunctional, self-absorbed wife and kids to accompany him on a cross-country road trip in a garishly painted, rented R.V. His kids, ashamed to be seen with him, are quick to dub their combo sleeping space and transportation a “rolling turd”. The name sticks and the R.V. takes on a strange personality of its own. When Robin hops in the driver’s chair it’s a lot like Jim Kirk taking command of a brightly painted, more annoying version of the Enterprise. Alright, maybe not that grandiose. It’s probably more like the Skipper getting behind the wheel of the S.S. Minnow.
Dad of course has a secret agenda. He has a business meeting at their final destination, and the entire trip is just a ruse for him to make it to the meeting without completely canceling their long planned family trip. He’s not a workaholic, but if he doesn’t show up at the meeting, there’s a solid chance he’ll lose his job. His coworkers convince him that his shopaholic wife won’t understand.
Robin is better here than he’s been in any comedy in decades. Like Jim Carrey, he’s best when he’s a bit restrained, and director Barry Sonnenfeld does a solid job of keeping Williams’ feet on the ground. When Robin does take off and turn a little Mork from Orc for a minute, it’s still a funny moment since it’s unexpected and brief. He’s got a great supporting cast too. His kids are kind of nonentities, but Cheryl Hines has some good supporting moments and a slimmed down Jeff Daniels as the head of a family of full time RVers comes close to stealing the film whenever he shows up on screen. Will Arnett gets a little post-“Arrested Development” work as Robin’s boss, and makes the most of his creepy corporate character. Actually, I think he may have been doing his take on one of my old bosses. Eerie.
There are one or two truly genius, big laughs in R.V. and the rest is spattered with light and entertaining chuckles. It falls into a pit full of sap towards the end and loses some of its charm amidst a swirl of Hollywood predictability, but R.V. is a lot more fun than it has any right to be and Williams brings a fresh take to the rather worn out family road trip genre. You’ll forget most of it five minutes after you leave the theater, but while in there you’ll enjoy it. In a year where the only good movies have been heavy issue pics like V for Vendetta or more computer animation like Ice Age 2, some airy, live-action, family friendly entertainment is a nice way to break things up.