Friday, August 27, 2010

Cruisin (not like thaaaaat)

Summer may be ending (thank goobers) but those lightening bugs are in full swing as one of my favorite bloggers and I get our recommend on. This month, I assigned T.L. Bugg of The Lightening Bugg’s Lair  the early ‘90s, pre-Scream meta-ish slasher Popcorn while I sat down with some lower cased popcorn and 1991’s Motorama. Did it beat the grease off Hot Wax Zombies On Wheels ? Read on...

Quick Plot: 10 year old Gus (Jordan Christopher Michael) ditches his seemingly monstrous parents (heard offscreen in a fight that would make Edward Albee blush) to drive across the country in search of eight “Motorama” cards collected at select gas stations. Like those McDonald’s summer cash-in games (I was always partial to the Dick Tracy one myself), Motorama offers an elusive grand cash prize for the savvy driver who completes his set. Despite being underage and under five feet tall, Gus gets off to a quick start cruising in a gorgeously vintage cherry red Mustang and a clever contraption to reach the pedals.

But what kind of road would let a child cruise by through six states? One that isn’t quite the America we know. Motorama takes place in a mildly alternate universe, one with slightly surreal leanings that fall somewhere between the brunch plate of David Lynch and Tim Burton. Like other tried and true road movies, it’s filled with elegant landscape shots and quirky locals that pop in for brief and odd episodes with our young and wise-beyond-his-years (maybe) hero. 
But rest assured, this ain’t North.

Although Gus has the makings of a precocious elementary schooler, he’s actually something of an adult jerk, never really endearing himself to the audience for any reason aside from his pluck and age. He steals from strangers, takes advantage of the stupid, and until the final scene, fails to make a single friend in his quest for the not-quite-American dream. It’s an interesting choice that makes Motorama both unusual and slightly cold. We like Gus because he’s ten going on fifty, but putting aside his smarts, there’s no real joy to the kid.

...Which is also pretty neat. It’s refreshing to not have the tried and true father figure waiting to be discovered or quirky sidekick tagging along. Gus has plenty of wacky adventures with impressive cameos--House of the Devil ’s Mary Woronov and Seinfeld’s Sandy Baron as unforgiving motorists, Garrett Morris as a good-natured mechanic, Drew Barrymore as a one-scene dreamgirl--but this isn’t a film about relationships. It’s a film about...well I don’t quite know yet. America, greed, futility, wasted youth, stamp collecting. It’s not clear, but that’s part of its charm.
High Points
The sheer detail in taking everything familiar and twisting it a few degrees is just impressive. Once you get past the Monopoly-like money and ridiculousness of Gus’s east at acting like a grownup, the universe of Motorama feels comfortable, interesting, and still believable

Low Points
While I'm extremely glad that Motorama doesn't go for the easy tricks, like narration or a token tell-me-your-story character meet, the lack of a real central voice does prevent the film from truly bringing us into the fate of Gus. We’re not really sure what he learns or if we should even care
Lessons Learned
Never accept an arm wrestling challenge from Meat Loaf. Especially if you’re 10

Likewise, use caution when gambling on horseshoe tosses, unless, of course, you’ve been looking for a way to get out of parenting
Cooks carry cash
It’s a shame that the DVD is so barebones, as this is a film that I’d love to hear discussed by all parties involved. Motorama is a bizarre little piece of light surrealism peppered by an odd dose of black comedy. I like it so far, but after just one viewing, I’m already itching to revisit Motorama and see how it plays again. It’s whimsical without being wishy washy, kooky yet fairly grounded in its own sense of alternate reality. A recommend for those days when you want to watch something you haven’t quite seen anything like before.

And speaking of recommendations, head over (probably this afternoon) to The Lightening Bug's Lair  for some buttery talk about Popcorn. Also, wish him a happy birthday as his blog forges into the terrible (but probably not actually terrible) twos!


  1. I'm glad you enjoyed this film. My friends and I discovered it on Cinemax in the mid nineties. It quickly became a film conducive to guys staying up way to late and imbibing far too much.

    Take the fact that Gus is a kid away from him, and he seems much like a guy who might have been on the road in a normal timeline when Esso and Exxon still gave out premiums. (Now the only premium is the primo amount of oil they've all left laying about, but that's way off topic.)I kind of read Motorama as Gus' Inferno or at least his life (I hesitate to say struggle though I suppose it is.) in this strange purgatory.

    Another film with the same kind of tone is Wristcutters, but with more likable characters. I really enjoyed your review and I can't wait until the next time we get to do a film swap.

  2. I actually watched this about a year ago...I'm still sure if I like it or not. One reason, as you mentioned...the kid is really a rotten little sucker. I wanted to give him a noogie and wash his mouth out with soap (not that I'm one to talk about not using profanity...).

    But the other thing that is odd about this movie (and you hit the nail on the head), I wasn't quite sure what I was supposed to take away from it. Was it a satire? Was it a horror movie? What was it?

    I also wish it had some more directorial flare. The same guy who wrote this also penned the great After Hours. Old Marty really pulled out all the stops on that one. That might have helped this a little more.

    But now it sounds like I'm ragging on it. I'm not. It's well worth seeing at least once. But prepared to scratch your head and say: "What was that?"

    Wow, that comment is way too freaking long...

  3. Zach: I'm so grateful for this recommendation. The film is going to sit with me for some time to be sure.

    Dusty: No comments are ever too long, especially when I agree with most of what they say. This definitely may have been a little more memorable with a sassier director, though it does have something of its own more lazy style. I think I'll keep it on my radar to revisit a few months from now and see if it reads any differently the second time around.

  4. Never heard of it. May check it out. Man, where do you get the time to watch all these movies? :)

  5. I come home from work at 6:30. By 7, a movie usually finds its way onto my TV whether I like it or not. I once had to call the cops to turn off Feeders, but they were too busy saving a fireman who was trying to rescue a kitten in a tree. It helps that my fella and cats tolerate most of my viewing, so I at least have a mini support network to help me through the bad times.

  6. Gus is endearing to me he's imperfect and relatable he's human. Who would want to watch a movie about a character with no flaws? I suspect he has been a adult man since the films beginning and only sees himself as a child. I see it as a way of him dealing with the trauma of his past.