Given the dearth of movies about romance among middle-aged people, some may be inclined to root for a character-driven production like “Coast to Coast” — until, that is, they try watching it. A dreary road movie that feels stilted and stagy too much of the time, this is the sort of project where people don’t converse so much as unleash speeches at each other. As a holdover from Showtime’s movie-every-other-week strategy, this tired retread brings together a lot of fine actors and then strands them in a gasless vehicle.
Adapted by Frederic Raphael from his own novel and directed by Paul Mazursky — who navigated similar terrain a dozen years or so ago in “Scenes From a Mall” — “Coast to Coast” is about a cross-country trek from Connecticut to Los Angeles and was shot in Toronto. Not that there’s anything new about the practice, but the emotional flourishes are just as unconvincing and ersatz as the locations.
That isn’t to say there aren’t moments between stars Richard Dreyfuss and Judy Davis, playing a couple taking one last trip together — after the death of a child and respective affairs that wounded their marriage — as a prelude to getting divorced. The problem is all the pit stops along the way, as they visit a dizzying, over-the-top array of characters that may as well be dubbed the ghosts of relationships past.
Driving a classic Thunderbird that Barnaby (Dreyfuss), a veteran TV writer, plans to deliver to his son as a wedding present, they encounter, in sequence, her sister, her former professor (Maximilian Schell), his ex-writing partner (Mazursky), their daughter (Selma Blair), her ex-lover and his ex-best friend (Fred Ward). At a certain point, as Bill Conti’s genial score kicks up and the pair hit the road again, the temptation arises to yell back at the screen, “Dear God! They’re only in Nebraska?”
Finally, at the completion of the journey, where there are more emotional exchanges with their son (David Julian Hirsh) and a producer (Saul Rubinek) who shafted Barnaby years before.
Each scene comes with its own peculiar twist, though none is terribly compelling and most ring hollow. Their nephew is a budding psychopath, the professor has remarried a woman less than half his age, their daughter has hooked up with a former NBA star (John Salley, who exhibits a nice onscreen persona), and the ex-lover is wildly agitated, though it’s hard to ascertain why.
“What happened to us, Maxine?” Barnaby asks his wife; the answer is obvious but not especially interesting. Losing a child is horribly traumatic, and each sought solace in different ways. Couldn’t we have agreed on that somewhere in Ohio and called it a day?
Credit Dreyfuss and Davis with giving it their best, but Raphael’s paper-thin script (including — no kidding — an Asian butler named Kato and fictitious sitcom titled “Sergeant Bimbo”) and Mazursky’s plodding direction tie them up in claustrophobic fashion, much like watching a bad play in a 50-seat theater.
Moreover, each sequence unfolds more strangely than the one before, until it’s a wonder that Barnaby & Maxine don’t detour to the Grand Canyon and pull a Thelma & Louise.
Showtime has already stated the channel intends to marshal its programming budget differently, focusing on series and higher-impact movies, which makes sense. In the interim, viewers will have an easier time of it than “Coast to Coast’s” central couple, escaping this long and winding road with just a flick of the remote control.