Wednesday, 26 April 2006

RV (2006)

Will Robin Williams return to form in this family comedy?

RV are the initials for “recreational vehicle”, better known as the trailer that people use for their cross-country vacations in North America. When you throw hapless people on a long ride on one of these vehicles, the comic possibilities are endless – and so are our memories of Chevy Chase in the National Lampoon’s Vacation series in the 1980s and Lucille Ball in The Long, Long Trailer in 1954. The family road trip comedy is one of the least likely movies you’ll expect to see Robin Williams in. It’s a well-worn genre that appears to have run out of new ideas, even though recent entries easily entertain and please the family audience. Will RV be the first movie in this comedy genre to break the camel’s back and chalk up yet another failure for Robin Williams after Bicentennial Man, or will this Williams’s comic genius breathe life into this genre and propel his long-awaited return to box office success?

In RV, Robin Williams plays Bob, the head of the Munro family. Bob is a loving husband and father, but the years of devotion to his job has lost him the love of his wife and children. Bratty children unimpressed with the father figure are a standard of the family road trip movie, but Cassie (JoJo Levesque) and Carl (Josh Hutcherson) dish out the put-downs constantly to humiliate Rob. Jamie (Cheryl Hines) is even more scathing and obnoxious to Rob than her children. To make things more miserable, Rob’s slimy boss demands he cancel his Hawaii vacation to give a corporate presentation in Colorado or risk losing his job. This sets off Rob’s scheme of renting an RV for a family road trip to vacation at the Rocky Mountains.

This particular innovation is moderately successful. Part of the comedy in RV comes from the nastiness Rob endures from his family and boss and his humorous reactions to them. These characters come across as difficult to like, but I couldn’t help smiling at the sense of meanspirited fun that Hines, Levesque and Hutcherson radiate when they tag team on Robin Williams. Kudos should go to Hines, an alumni from the Groundlings Theatre comedy troupe and a regular of Curb Your Enthusiasm, for her comic ensemble training. Robin Williams’s improvisational skills are still fresh, but he plays his part with so much uncharacteristic restraint you begin to wonder when he’ll explode, Adam Sandler style, at his mean family.

Here’s my beef with RV: Robin Williams may be funny, but the script does nothing to exploit the new twist in RV’s setup. It’s as if Geoff Rodkey imagined casting Adam Sandler when he first wrote the script, but realised that Sandler is about 10 years too young for the role. Robin Williams’s Bob never explodes, even though the script still builds towards it. It’s a letdown that the movie veers from its borderline subversive path to wholesome mainstream goodness after the half-way mark through an unconvincing incident.

The good news is, the mainstream and predictable elements of RV are genuinely funny. There are jokes about driving trailers badly, the mishaps of cross-country road trips, and the encounters with an overfriendly rural family in a trailer who end up sharing the same itinerary as the Munros. There is something about the performances by Robin Williams, Chery Hines and Kristin Chenoweth (best remembered for her recurring role in the final seasons of The West Wing) that make ordinary and normal gags feel much funnier. This may not be much, but even when RV breaks no new comic ground, it still feels superior to most recent comedies, and it stands head and shoulders above all the comedies released so far this year.

Is this a definite return to form by Robin Williams? There’s too much restraint in his performance, so we don’t see his madcap genius. His comic timing and talent for stand-up deliveries and one-liners is still intact. RV is a delightful comedy, but doesn’t qualify as a proper test for the great comedian. RV is the first out of seven films starring Robin Williams this year (including Mrs Doubtfire 2), so we’ll have plenty of time to savour his performances.

First published at incinemas on 15 June 2006

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