Bringing new meaning — if not new heights of hilarity — to the concept of a Robin Williams vehicle, Sony/Columbia’s “RV” works up an ingratiating sweetness that partially compensates for its blunt predictability and meager laughs. With Williams relatively subdued as a father trying to keep spirits high during the worst family vacation ever, this Barry Sonnenfeld-directed road-trip romp looks more like a station wagon than a Winnebago, B.O.-wise, though the actor’s lengthy absence from the comic mainstream should ensure a solid opening.
As he did to considerably more manic effect in 1993’s “Mrs. Doubtfire,” Williams plays a resourceful paterfamilias whose scheming is ostensibly an outgrowth of genuine love for his family. His Bob Munro is a high-paid exec at a Los Angeles soda conglomerate, enabling him to provide a comfortable lifestyle but have little quality time for his yuppie wife Jamie (“Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” Cheryl Hines), short-fused daughter Cassie (Joanna “JoJo” Levesque) and pint-sized but macho son Carl (Josh Hutcherson).
When his sleazy boss (Will Arnett) forces him to cancel the family’s Hawaii vacation to seal a deal with a Colorado-based beverage company, Bob, rather than level with his family, rents a tanklike motor home and insists that a road trip is exactly what they need.
His wife and kids are thoroughly exasperated by this implausible turn of events (a feeling that may well be shared by the audience), and Geoff Rodkey’s screenplay lays on the disgruntled bickering very thick in the early going. Cassie, in particular, displays enough attitude for three hormonal teenagers, her sarcastic dialogue sounding unnecessarily harsh even when the trip takes a turn, as it must, for the worst.
In addition to being green and spectacularly hideous, the lumbering vehicle comes equipped with faulty brakes — a setback that causes it to roll away at inopportune moments, thus accounting for roughly half the film’s store of jokes. Script soon reaches its gross-out nadir in a mirthlessly protracted sequence that finds Bob trying to empty the RV’s septic tank.
Pic improves significantly with the introduction of another traveling family composed of Travis Gornicke (Jeff Daniels), his wife Mary Jo (a delightful Kristin Chenoweth) and their endearingly gawky children (Hunter Parrish, Chloe Sonnenfeld and Alex Ferris). Thoroughly turned off by this gregarious Southern clan, their intrusive hospitality and their penchant for group yodeling, the Munros try to distance themselves as much as possible.
Yet rather than reduce them to homespun caricatures, pic wisely holds up the Gornickes as a refreshing counterexample of a family that is functional, guileless and devoid of materialism. While this doesn’t up the laugh factor by much, it does steer “RV” into more mature, emotionally grounded territory.
As Bob labors to maintain his deception — even feigning gastrointestinal distress during a nature hike so he can sneak off to a business meeting — a lesson about the meaning of family and sticking it to the Man looms large on the horizon. Fortunately, helmer Sonnenfeld (the “Men in Black” movies, “Get Shorty”) has good schmaltz antennae and keeps the sap to a minimum here.
Save for one out-of-nowhere gangsta-riff monologue, this is one of Williams’ least shtick-reliant performances; at some points, thesp has the unusual role of playing the straight man to the more boisterous Daniels. Supporting cast is strong, including Levesque and Hutcherson, whose appeals extend past the superficial sullenness of their roles. But the real scene-stealer is Chenoweth, here displaying the same effortless sparkle and bracing warmth that made her such a Broadway luminary.
Fred Murphy’s lush widescreen lensing, showcasing wooded British Columbia locales standing in for Colorado to often dazzling effect, is the chief standout of a strong tech package.