Faces, disfigured with boredom, gaze dully out over blasted landscapes. Septic hoses drip fecal matter onto the body of a middle-aged man. The sun blasts an anonymous, flat landscape interrupted only by rundown bars and empty campsites. Welcome to the world of RV (Columbia Pictures), the latest Robin Williams movie, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Premiering out of competition at the Tribeca Film Festival, it is set to open this weekend, and its bleak dissection of middle-class angst and emotional death is guaranteed to shock audiences, some of whom might even cry.
Robin Williams plays Bob Munro, an emotionally crippled family man who is locked in a master/slave relationship with his boss (Will Arnett, from Arrested Development). When his job is threatened, Williams has no choice but to cancel his family's vacation to Hawaii and instead con them into taking a vacation in an RV to Colorado where he will secretly make a presentation to a small soda company that his corporation is purchasing. Williams' family is shattered, numbing themselves with alcohol, pills, pop music, and powerlifting. His wife (Cheryl Hines, from Curb Your Enthusiasm) is a brittle woman whose large teeth and emaciated frame paint her as the personification of sterility. His children are Cassie (played by the singer known only as JoJo) and Carl (Josh Hutcherson). Cassie seems to be eternally angry with her father, who used to entertain her with sock puppets but now spends all his hours hunched over his laptop. Carl looks like a small boy and is obsessed with powerlifting, but, as it is later revealed in the film, he is actually much older than he appears and suffers from a condition that makes him appear prepubescent.
These emotionally deadened zombies are loaded into the RV against their will and head for Colorado. But as they leave the blue-state edges of the country for the red-state center, the film turns dark. The red states are populated with menacing grotesques, particularly the hyper-sexualized Gornicke clan, led by Jeff Daniels, who dresses like Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain and uses every opportunity to cuddle, hold, squeeze, and hug Robin Williams. And feces begin to drip like something in a Cronenberg film.
Barry Sonnenfeld has always told stories about outsiders making their way in a new world, but in RV he tells a story about doo-doo. The film is covered in it. The Munro family's RV is nicknamed "the big rolling turd," and the male characters constantly talk about using the bathroom to "launch an ICBM." An early set piece is concerned with draining the RV's septic tank, an exercise that draws an audience and ends with Williams humiliated and soaked in yellow, liquefied excrement before Daniels hoses him off, with special attention paid to hosing off Williams' crotch. Later in the movie, Williams will feign diarrhea to escape to his business meeting, and he spends many scenes sitting on the toilet while using his laptop. Slobber, chewed food, brains, and liquefied human fat also make unpleasant appearances.
But here the film inverts the Deliverance formula: The more the Munros are covered in feces, the more they seem to enjoy it. As they move toward the ripe, fertile center of the country, they come alive. As their gleaming RV becomes more and more decrepit, they reconnect with their own essential selves until finally they pass through a suggestive mud flume and come out on the other side dirty, caked with mud, and streaked with other, less pleasant, substances. Immediately they adjourn to a bar and get drunk, enjoying each other's bodies and souls for the first time.
Strangely, such a film does not seem to be aimed at children. At the Tribeca screening, the adults watched, appalled and fascinated to see their emotional lives portrayed in such visceral, hideous detail, while the children ran up and down the aisles and asked me for M&M's. A few slept. Scatologically obsessed, grim, shockingly sexualized, RV is another disturbing entry in the dark cycle of movies that began for Robin Williams with One Hour Photo and Insomnia and has continued with The Night Listener. I look forward with queasy dread to what he'll do in Mrs. Doubtfire 2.