Jason Mantzoukas is some sort of national treasure, and director Hannah Fidell’s delightfully agonizing road comedy The Long Dumb Road proves it — though not quite in the way we might expect. He is certainly one of the funniest actors we have, as demonstrated by scene-stealing live-wire turns in films like Neighbors and Dirty Grandpa and shows like The Good Place and The League and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He was also a genuine force of nature — a whirling dervish of side-splitting self-pity, careless indulgence, and twisted charisma — in last year’s criminally overlooked The House.
So it’s understandable to expect Mantzoukas’s turn in The Long Dumb Road, as Richard, a temperamental mechanic and lifelong screw-up who hitches a ride with Tony Revolori’s art-school-bound 19-year-old Nat, to be a riotously funny one. And it is, often. But where we might expect escalating lunacy, Mantzoukas and director Fidell bring … something else. It’s not subtlety, exactly; Richard is too big a character for that. But his broadness isn’t that of a one-note funnyman. He whipsaws between depths of brazenness, fury, self-loathing, and abject embarrassment. He’s a supernova of broken manhood mixed with stunted adolescence, with a little substance abuse thrown in — the guy some of us are afraid of becoming and, in our darkest moments, are secretly convinced we are.
It all starts when Nat, driving from Austin to Los Angeles, finds his car breaking down in the middle of nowhere, right as Richard is walking out on his latest dead-end garage job. He fixes the engine, then asks the boy for a ride. Learning that Nat wants to be an artist, he questions him about his artistic philosophy. When the kid says he has none, Richard declares that everybody has a philosophy; his is that all one needs in life are friends, shelter, and food. “Everything else is bullshit, and I am at war with bullshit.”
We might at this point start to settle in for a comedy in which Richard attempts to teach this shy, sheltered teen about life, with wild, profane results. In fact, Richard himself might be settling in for such a ride as well. “I will rip the condom off of this world so you can fuck this world raw,” he boldly tells Nat.
That is not exactly what happens. In fact, it becomes quite clear early on that Richard knows almost nothing about this world; he doesn’t even know that they made sequels to his favorite movie, Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift. Richard also has a short fuse that sometimes serves them well — as when he defends Nat against some bellicose rednecks in a bar — but mostly he sabotages everything, and repeatedly pulls Nat into his vortex of calamities. And each narrative disaster seems to result in variations on self-debasement, followed by renewed bluster on Richard’s part. Soon, it’s the 19-year-old Nat who seems to be taking care of this overgrown, 35-year-old man-child.
The humiliations of The Long Dumb Road are often as dramatic as they are comic. Richard fondly recalls, and regrets losing touch with, his high-school sweetheart, Sharon (Casey Wilson). Nat proposes they go visit her. What transpires is deliriously cringe-worthy, but not in the kind that provokes belly laughs; we laugh, but we also keep waiting for something awful to happen.
If I keep dwelling on all the things this movie isn’t, that’s because Fidell and screenwriter Carson Mell seem quite aware that they’re working in a tradition here, toying with a genre built around male bonding and coming of age. But they’re also intent on blowing it up. If this type of picture has in the past highlighted manly camaraderie and the passing of codes, The Long Dumb Road presents those codes as being largely bullshit, predicated on stunted emotional growth, self-indulgent regret, and a lot of barely subdued, inchoate rage.
But the film never stops loving these characters. Mantzoukas brilliantly juggles all the different forces of Richard’s personality so that we never quite know what to make of this guy, which in turn means that we never quite know what will happen next with him and Nat. Fidell stays true to that knife’s-edge feeling throughout: She never tries for pat resolutions, or easy conclusions. She finds affection in Richard’s brokenness, in the fact that he’s ultimately just a screw-up like the rest of us — petty and weak and lost and profoundly, profoundly human.