It’s rare that a movie prods and reshapes the culture, but in 1978, the slovenly frat-boy high jinks of ”National Lampoon’s Animal House” did just that. Food fights, peekaboo nudity, ”boogie till you puke” toga parties: Overnight, the movie put a generation in touch with its yearning for salacious slob liberation. It was the real kickoff, three years before MTV, of Spring Break as a state of mind. It was also the launch-pad, of course, for a thousand crudely raunchy imitators – the gross-out exploitation comedies of the ’80s, like ”Gorp ”and ”Private School” and the box office smash ”Porky’s” (which was essentially ”Animal House” with less wit and more breasts). Most of these pictures were junk, yet they had one thing going for them: an internal Enemy. They helped set the tone for a world in which piggy excess was cool and responsibility and good taste were to be attacked and destroyed.
Back then, no one could have guessed that the grade-Z ”Animal House” clones would one day be remembered as hip, dumb touchstones and fondly recycled in movies like ”American Pie” and the clever, shallow, genially vulgar Road Trip. The new models, if anything, are superior to the old – smartly paced studio machines stocked with gifted young actors who love to clown. They also let women in on the action, allowing them to be sharp-tongued characters and not just hot-bod pinups with movable parts. What these movies don’t have – can’t have – is the genuine, roguish kick that comes from slaying an Enemy. Spring Break anarchy, after all, is no longer a rowdy, rock & roll stance, it’s the status quo, and good taste is but a distant memory. ”Road Trip,” which, like ”Animal House,” was produced by Ivan Reitman, celebrates the triumph of hedonistic righteousness in a world where it already rules.
In Ithaca, N.Y., nice-guy college student Josh (Breckin Meyer) is struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship with Tiffany (Rachel Blanchard), his childhood sweetheart, but he can’t resist the tawny blond charms of Beth (Amy Smart). When a homemade video of their hot sexual encounter is accidentally mailed to Tiffany’s dorm in Austin, Tex., he takes off on a frantic three-day joy ride to intercept the tape and sidestep disaster. Along for the journey are two buddies: party animal E.L. (Seann William Scott), who preens like a BMOC version of Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath, and sensitive, brainy Rubin (Paulo Costanzo), a kind of junior Jerry Seinfeld. Rounding out the group is Kyle, the much-ridiculed virgin dork who provides the car. He’s played by newcomer DJ Qualls, who proves to be a major scene-stealer with his little-boy naïveté and weirdly elastic, beaky bird face.
The very title ”Road Trip” has a basic-goods, ’80s-nostalgia flavor; it hints that the movie is going to revel in its high-concept, lowbrow glory. The director, Todd Phillips, is the former punk-provocateur documentarian who made the controversial ”Frat House,” and here, helming his first Hollywood feature, he’s careful not to break any taboos that haven’t already been thoroughly pre-smashed; he stages the movie as a series of flip, ”naughty but not too naughty” set pieces. The boys wreck their car, procure a bus from a school for the blind, crash at an African-American fraternity, and visit a sperm bank, where, in one of the few moments of all-out hilarity, the macho E.L. gets in touch with an unexpected erogenous zone.
If Phillips brings anything fresh to the movie, it’s a predilection for slightly outré sexual kinkiness. He gives himself a cameo as a fuzzy-haired foot fetishist, and the scene in which Kyle loses his virginity to a sweet girl who’s as roly-poly as she is game probably touches closer to a lot of people’s squirmy realities than they’d care to admit. Along the way, Tom Green, MTV’s goateed reptile, narrates the film as he tries to get a boa to dine on a live mouse, then flirts with gulping it down himself. He never does eat the damn thing, and that’s ”Road Trip” in a nutshell: slick, reasonably amusing, never asking its audience to swallow anything too wild for consumption.