roadThe Open Road, starring Justin Timberlake and Jeff Bridges as an estranged son and father who struggle to reconnect during a cross-country trip to visit Timberlake’s ailing mother, opens in limited release today. Sure, it sounds like a downer, until you consider that the next road movie coming out is October’s The Road, where Viggo Mortensen plays a father struggling to protect his son from cannibals in postapocalyptic America. Suddenly the Timberlake flick seems pretty rompy!

The Open Road is a dramedy, supposedly, but I usually like my road movies to have a little more whimsy in the engine. You know what I mean — they should have things like bears in Studebakers and phantom truck drivers and Paul Giamatti freaking out like a tightly wound wallaby. With that in mind, hop in and let’s take a ride down the Random Road Movie Highway.

The Muppet Movie (1979): I wouldn’t know what to think about somebody who doesn’t love The Muppet Movie, other than that he or she is probably a sociopath. In fact, that’s the first question the authorities should ask suspected serial killers: Do you love The Muppet Movie? If the answer is no — BAM! Throw away the key.

The Muppet Movie — directed by TV veteran James Frawley, who, frankly, Jim Henson should’ve kept around for the rest of the Muppet movies — is a lot of things: a musical, a comedy, and the best repository of cameo appearances since It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), but at its heart it’s a road movie. It’s even — dare I say it — an odyssey. (And unlike It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, which I suppose could fit the same description, it’s aged beautifully. Even the Hare Krishna bits are still funny.)

Yes, I realize the Muppets were created in a workshop using felt and glue guns, but I prefer to believe that this is how they got together: one at a time, joining each other on the open road, dodging fried-frog-legs salesmen, and having exchanges like this one, as Kermit is about to have his brain fried by Mel Brooks’s crazy German scientist:

Miss Piggy: Kermie, whatever happens next, I wouldn’t give up this evening together for anything. Would you?
Kermit:
Make me an offer.

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995): Sure, there probably wouldn’t be a To Wong Foo without 1994’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which was arguably more of a road movie than To Wong Foo — and just a better film, period. But while Beeban Kidron’s film may lack some of Priscilla’s subtle charms, it more than makes up for it by having Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes wearing dresses. (John Leguizamo’s also in drag, but that doesn’t seem as much of a stretch.)

I realize that most of the movie hinges on the residents of a small backwater town believing these guys are actually women, as residents of small backwater towns in movies are wont to do, because not only do they have very poor eyesight, they also apparently never watch HBO. But somehow the trio won me over, whether they were charming the pants off old ladies or beating up rednecks in full drag-queen garb.

And let’s face it, when Chris Penn as the backwoods sheriff launches a manhunt (so to speak) utilizing a list with the heading “Places for Homos” (flower shops, ballet schools, flight attendants’ lounges, restaurants for brunch, and antiques shops, natch), that’s comedy.

Sideways (2004): Usually in this feature I don’t touch on recent movies that were actually, well, popular, but I feel I’d be remiss in talking about random road movies without mentioning Alexander Payne’s Sideways, easily the funniest film in which Paul Giamatti is chased down the street by a giant naked man.

But while that’s certainly a highlight (and how could it not be?), the real joy of this movie is observing the relationship between Giamatti’s self-loathing, underachieving powder keg, Miles, and Thomas Haden Church’s insecure, ego-driven man-boy, Jack, during their wine-country excursion. The only way these two could ever be friends is if they were freshman-year roommates, which of course they were — one of many revelations that ring absolutely true in this painfully funny film.

I think it may also be the only road movie where the protagonist brings along his unpublished novel in two large shoeboxes, presumably in case he meets a waitress who might want to read it. That sounds like something I would do.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985): Poor Pee-wee, a.k.a. Paul Reubens. Before he got caught diddling himself in an adult movie theater, he won over children of all ages in one of the most surreal road movies this side of Wild at Heart. Is it strange for me to say this is still my favorite Tim Burton movie? It actually has, you know, a plot. That you can follow.

It’s also a love story, of course, between a boy-man (not to be confused with a man-boy) and his bicycle, and between a girl-woman and her boy-man, and between James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild and some ninjas. And it has Large Marge, who still makes me jump out of my seat every time even though I now know, with pinpoint accuracy, the exact moment when her googly eyes are going to pop out of her skull.

Reubens recently announced plans to revive Pee-wee for an L.A. stage show this November. We can only hope another movie is his next step. I’m sure Tim Burton would come back, and you know what that means — the long-awaited Pee-wee/Johnny Depp team-up! Well, long awaited by me, anyway.

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996): Technically this is only half a road movie, the other half being a people-turned-into-and/or-dismembered-by-vampires movie. I can’t say I actually like this movie so much as I’m fascinated by it: just when you think it can’t get any more amoral or disgusting, it throws in a scene where, say, a girl has to kill her own brother as he’s being devoured by vampire zombies. Who wants more popcorn?

This movie is also further proof that George Clooney can do absolutely anything and still be likable, and that its screenwriter, Quentin Tarantino, in addition to being a sadist, should never appear onscreen in anything, ever. You watch From Dusk Till Dawn wondering what Peter Stormare (Fargo) might have done with Tarantino’s role. I suspect he would’ve, you know, acted.

Still, the road-movie portion of this film, as bloody as it may be, is still compelling and chock-full of that goosey Tarantino adrenaline, via director and Grindhouse partner in crime Robert Rodriguez. Hey, just because Tarantino’s a sadist doesn’t mean he can’t get a movie’s blood pumping — literally, in most cases. If he and Rodriguez had stayed on the road, they might’ve ended up with a pretty good flick.

(Dis)honorable mention: road race/chase movies. The above example notwithstanding (or maybe withstanding, come to think of it), road movies shouldn’t count as road movies if the people on the road are being chased, like in Smokey and the Bandit (1977), or raced, like in Cannonball Run one through six. (Yes, I know there were only two installments, but they felt three times as long when I saw them.) Actually, any Hal Needham movie that has Burt Reynolds and a car in it shouldn’t count as a road movie — or entertainment, for that matter (the first two Smokey and the Bandits, the Cannonball Run movies, Hooper, Stroker Ace).

The Open Road has none of those things, so maybe it’ll do all right. But I have a sneaking suspicion it could use some vampires.

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