Marital road trip


April 03, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

From the Beat Generation's On the Road to MTV's Road Rules today, it is hard to think of a narrative more basic to American popular culture than the road trip. East to West, ocean to ocean, across the great expanse, it seems as if each generation comes of age using the road trip to test itself - re-enacting in microcosm our national experience of taming the frontier.

Coast to Coast, a new Showtime movie starring Judy Davis and Richard Dreyfuss, takes that fundamental storyline and adapts it for an older generation facing a different kind of life passage - a middle-aged couple apparently headed for divorce. In the skilled hands of veteran director Paul Mazursky (Enemies: a Love Story) and screenwriter Frederic Raphael (Two for the Road, Eyes Wide Shut), the result is one of the most engaging, poignant and ultimately illuminating made-for-cable television movies of the year.

Dreyfuss and Davis play Barnaby and Maxine Pierce, an upper-middle-class Connecticut couple in transition, if not trauma. Their white-picket-fence-perfect, empty nest of a home is on the market as the film opens, and neither is doing anything to help the realtor make a sale. Maxine snarls at any potential buyers foolish enough to try and make friendly small talk as they tour the house, while Barnaby is downright nasty.

Barnaby is a retired sitcom writer whose claim to fame and affluence is a goofy military sitcom titled Sergeant Bimbo (Think Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.). His self-contempt is all too transparent in his rude response to a potential buyer who notices a piece of Bimbo memorabilia and tells him how much she liked the show. Maxine unloads with equal venom on another visitor who asks if she "ever worked" only moments after being told by the realtor that Maxine raised three children in the house.

Intelligent, unhappy and bitter, it seems as if these two could be headed for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? country with a couple of drinks under their belts. But instead of letting them wallow in the failure of their marriage, Mazursky quickly gets them on the road in a vintage Thunderbird headed for California and the upcoming marriage of their son, Benjamin (David Julian Hirsch). The car is going to be a wedding gift. Driving it out to California together is Barnaby's idea, a last dance as it were, since Maxine has decided she wants a divorce. Maxine reluctantly agrees to the trip.

The journey is deftly crafted to have the couple re-visit several of the most important moments of passage in their marriage and lives. In Ohio, for example, they visit Maxine's old college professor, Casimir Michaelstadt (Maximilian Schell). She had a crush on him; he considered her among his best and brightest. Barnaby and Maxine slept together for the first time in a bedroom in Casimir's home when she was housesitting. They wind up spending a night in the same room on the trip.

In a lightweight, sentimental made-for-TV movie, the couple would find some bit of their lost passion and youth in that bedroom, but Mazursky and Raphael are too tough-minded for that. What Barnaby and Maxine mainly find is disappointment in themselves and their beloved professor, who has aged badly and cruelly cast aside his wife for a woman young enough to have been the daughter of one of his students.

Then it's back on the road to Minneapolis to see an unwed, pregnant daughter (Selma Blair) before heading off to Denver, where Maxine plans to see a man with whom she had an affair while married to Barnaby. It's OK; Barnaby had an extramarital affair with the wife of his best friend (Mazursky), whom they had visited earlier.

Mazursky has traveled this road before, in 1974 with Harry and Tonto, the story of a septuagenarian (Art Carney) and his cat who take to the road after being evicted from their New York City apartment. Not exactly Easy Rider, but Carney won an Oscar for his performance, and the film won acclaim for the blueprint it offered on living with grace, dignity, and courage as an elderly man in a youth-obsessed America.

Maxine and Barnaby learn something about courage, tolerance and friendship on their American odyssey. Will it be enough to help their marriage pass the road test?

Back in 1974, Coast to Coast would have been a major studio feature film like Harry and Tonto. But Hollywood these days doesn't make many films about people in their 50s, no matter how fine the acting, writing or direction might be. Thank goodness for cable.

To see a video of Sun TV Critic David Zurawik reviewing Coast to Coast, visit


What: Coast to Coast

When: Tomorrow night at 8

Where: Showtime

In brief: Judy Davis and Richard Dreyfuss take an on-the-rocks marriage on the road.

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