Jason Mantzoukas and Tony Revolori make for an unlikely odd couple in the next great American road trip comedy.
Hannah Fidell is a filmmaker we’ve been tracking since her 2013 feature debut A Teacher, a taut and tense thriller that we reviewed here at Sundance. In that debut, she showed a deft ability to create unnerving intimacy and hold a consistently tense atmosphere throughout a film’s entire runtime. In 2015, Fidell brought her second feature 6 Years to South by Southwest, delivering another tense and unexpectedly violent love story. Any assessment of her career thus far would have to include the fact that she has a bit of a dark streak, a fearless propensity for exploring all the ways love and companionship can go wickedly wrong. It was the kind of two film start to a career in which a filmmaker can be pigeonholed into telling the same kinds of stories over and over. This can still be a path to success, especially operating in the independent space, but it often stagnates the filmmaker’s growth.
With her third, Fidell bucks that trend in a big way. The Long Dumb Road isn’t a shy or saccharine film by any means, but it’s a tonal departure from what we’ve seen from this promising young voice in the past. It’s a road trip comedy anchored by two polar opposite charmers, The League‘s Jason Mantzoukas and The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s Tony Revolori.
Revolori plays Nat, a 19-year-old traveling from his family home in Austin, TX to art school in Los Angeles. Along the way, Nat stumbles into some car trouble and is saved by the fiercely authentic Richard. As Richard, Mantzoukas enters the film like a buzzsaw — a tornado of profanity and rebellious energy. Recently relieved of his job at a highway-side auto garage, Richard successfully fixes Nat’s car problems and in turn, earns himself a ride in the direction of Las Vegas, where he is to start a new life.
The two actors, one known for charming, subdued performances and the other known for manic, absurd comedy moments, are an unlikely but delightful pair. A good portion of the film is spent with them alone in a car exploring the lives of their characters. Both are good storytellers; both offer masterful reaction comedy. Fidell and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo uses the gorgeous vistas along that long drive between Central Texas and Southern California to supplement the comedy with some stunning cinematography, but it’s the company that matters most.
Even in the space of a 90-minute runtime, every portion of the journey is given room to breathe. Nat is a young artist who has an interest in capturing “The Real America” through his Pentax camera, and Richard is ready to light things on fire at any moment. Together, they stumble through their journey, bringing out the best in each other.
In that regard, it’s a rather traditional odd couple road trip movie. But that’s not something we should hold against it — sometimes the familiar is fine if we’re being given something else that’s new. And what’s new here is that Fidell sees Jason Mantzoukas as a legit leading man. He’s often seen as a supporting player, and that works. In shows like The League or indie films like Sleeping With Other People, Mantzoukas has always been a well-utilized burst of comedic energy. Here, his bursts are flanked with some raw dramatic work to carry the film. He has a great running mate in Revolori, but this is the Mantzoukas show.
The Long Dumb Road is the exact sort of film you hope to see from a filmmaker who has spent a few years on the festival circuit. It’s something different and fresh, but not lacking in that filmmaker’s signature moves. Hannah Fidell continues to be a filmmaker to watch, but this might be the kind of accessible, rambunctious comedy that allows her to find a larger audience. Especially if this film ends up on the ledger of a smart studio or streaming service. Delightfully weird, relentlessly funny, occasionally vulgar, and thoughtful in all the right ways, The Long Dumb Road demands your attention all the way to the end of the final credits.