Freshman photography student Nathan (Tony Revolori) is on a quest to find the real America. On “The Long Dumb Road” of director Hannah Fidell’s title, his trek from Texas to Los Angeles, he pulls over to shoot shuttered movie theaters and American flags drooping over drive-thrus, the kind of cynical corporate salute a kid like him considers deep. He’s too snobby to actually eat a fast-food burger, but when his purple minivan breaks down in Fort Stockton, the real America — or at least, an alcoholic mechanic (Jason Mantzoukas) drifting through it — takes the wheel of his trip, with several disastrous detours and stretches of pleasant pointlessness.
The normcore-meets-nutcase road comedy is older than Route 66, and the film’s destination could have been plotted by Google Maps, as well as the familiar screen sight of two men companionably peeing together in the wilderness. Along the way, Nathan and Richard bond and bicker while navigating, and detonating, encounters with a pair of hard-partying sisters (Grace Gummer and Taissa Farmiga), a fraught mother and daughter (Casey Wilson and Ciara Bravo), a former con-man (Ron Livingston), and a bear-fighting park ranger (Lindsay Burdge).
Fidell’s third film after her darker dramas “A Teacher” and “6 Years” is a light-fingered diversion. She keeps an eye on class. People continually offer each other small amounts of cash and debate whether its a gift or an insult. Yet, thankfully, the film shuns any pressure to weigh in on the culture clash dividing the county. (Mantzoukas’ Richard definitely doesn’t vote.) “The Long Dumb Road” simply traces the arc of two misfits, one looking to get more weird, and the other wondering, albeit briefly and drunk, if he’d make the same weird choices again.
The movie starts with a purr: Nathan, his wheels, and the open road. Then Richard storms in screaming. Clothes stained, hair wild, Mantzoukas looks like he’s been dragged out of the trash and deep-fried. And there’s not much keeping him from climbing back in. He’s just been fired from a garage and owns nothing but a big mouth that lets him talk his way into anyone’s good graces, briefly. He’s headed to Vegas on impulse more than anything. Wheedling his way into Nathan’s car, he coos, “I have very kind eyes.”
True. But he’s also got a feral temper. Like an extreme surfer, Richard throws his whole body into riding big waves of cheer and fury. When one wipes him out, he pops back up like nothing happened. He’s the kind of guy who hogs every conversation and won’t shut up about his heartbreaks, and then whines that no one wants to listen. (Mantzoukas adds a rasp to his springy, rubbery voice — the sound of someone who needs to stop yelling.) He’s a mess, and he’s angry and dangerous, yet his complete freedom from belongings, money, and people’s opinions of his stable genius, gives him the aura of a messianic cult leader if he found the right rube.
That’s not Nathan. No matter how many curves this plot takes, Fidell commits to the truth that this 19-year-old kid is going to wind up okay. She and co-writer Carson Mell are too honest to threaten otherwise. Nathan is sensible, which allows Revolori to channel the clarity of the lobby boy he played in Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” with a few extra giggles. When Richard asks Nathan if he ever performed a certain love act on his ex-girlfriend, Revolori’s soft laugh is a thing of wonder. While he’ll down every shot Richard eggs him to drink, this is just a vacation from his planned-out life, a fun story to impress his new college friends. Of course, after Richard eyes the cash Nathan’s parents shoved in his pocket, we know the boy is going to be paying for every round. He should — even though Richard is technically the one asking for favors, the broke adult knows that Nathan is still getting the better end of the deal.
Instead of slapstick laughs, “The Long Dumb Road” pays attention to how these two opposites connect. At first, they kowtow and brag, both pretending to be normal bros. No surprises that the kid’s favorite movie is “The Graduate,” which Richard’s never heard of. The wild-man loves the first three “The Fast and the Furious” flicks, and is stunned to hear they’ve made a total of eight — a character beat so clueless, it makes the audience falsely assume he’s an ex-con or a space alien.
It’s fun to hear Richard rage against the Americana Nathan considers real. He’s aghast to learn they’re spending a night in a kitschy mobile home in Marfa. He spent his whole life trying to get out of trailer parks. Now they’re paying good money to sleep in one? Fidell glances by class tensions, letting us sense the ceiling that’s kept Richard from ever having good options, before turning her attention to the tricky issue of consent. Once Nathan’s invited this guy into his car, he’s scared to ask him to leave, even after Richard whips out a knife.
Fittingly, right when the mood starts to darken, they pull over for the night in Truth or Consequences. It’s an either/or choice, but the film motors ahead without making any hard decisions except keeping viewers entertained. The adventure is aimless, but the company is good.