America “seems to be discovered over and over and never definitively,” Andrei Codrescu muses at the start of “Road Scholar,” as he launches on a journey in search of the nation’s spirit and his own relationship to it.
The commentator for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” offers a look at the United States that is far more idiosyncratic than definitive, but this zippy, witty docu is sophisticated and amusing enough to carve out a small place in the theatrical market on its way to a healthy life in TV and video.
Admittedly inspired by “On the Road,” the Romanian-born Codrescu, accompanied by producer-director Roger Weisberg and co-helmer-lenser Jean de Segonzac, set out from New York to San Francisco in December 1991 (after a dry run by the filmmakers alone). But first, Codrescu had to learn how to drive, providing a funny prologue.
The intellectual writer and poet grew up with the European romanticism for the American road, and would drive nothing less than a cherry red, extravagantly finned vintage Cadillac convertible.
To fortify himself, he feasts on meat at Sammy’s Romanian restaurant on the Lower East Side, acknowledges some Haitians living in a wall, then pays homage to Walt Whitman’s home in Camden, N.J., on his way to a utopian community where a small group pursues an ascetic existence as Jesus is imagined to have lived, utterly without modern conveniences.
From there it’s up to Niagara Falls, to his Caddy’s birthplace in Detroit, and on to the Chicago area, where he visits the Board of Trade, the original McDonald’s, black Holy Rollers and a “junk” artist whose creations offend neighbors in suburban Glencoe.
Codrescu finds the Old West intact in Colorado, where a hot female shooting instructor provides a lesson in firing a machine gun. In New Mexico he opines that “the ’60s never died in Santa Fe,” where he has some riotous encounters with New Age types, notably a psychic who manhandles him pretty handily.
After speeding past the schlock on Route 66 and winning at poker in Vegas, the poetic wayfarer finally arrives in San Francisco, where matters turn a bit more serious, as Codrescu reflects on the value of freedom, which has made possible the lifestyles of those he’s met along the way.
While Weisberg’s P.O.V. certainly leans toward the humorous, the film doesn’t indulge in cheap shots. De Segonzac’s camera is exceptionally alert to the ironies of the diverse situations. Most viewers will have traveled down this road before, but Codrescu’s distinctive perspective makes the trip worth taking.