My Favorite Movies – The Daytrippers (1997)

17 May

By Tanner Smith

I love director Greg Mottola’s work (that I’ve seen anyway). I love Superbad. I love Adventureland. I love the three “Arrested Development” episodes he directed. And he also directed a majority of the episodes of the short-lived series “Undeclared,” which I also love.

I didn’t see Mottola’s debut feature “The Daytrippers” until last year during the quarantine. I liked it…since then, I’ve seen it a few more times, it crosses my mind sometimes, I streamed it recently on-demand, and…yeah, I love it. It’s a new favorite. So I’m gonna talk about it!

“The Daytrippers” starts off as a droll comedy of oddball characters and then it develops into a heavy drama about relationships in crisis–I’ll admit, the first time I saw the film, I thought the shift was overbearing; but the more I watch it, the more I understand how it came to be.

It begins as Eliza (Hope Davis), a seemingly happily married young woman, discovers a love letter near her husband’s bureau. Concerned that her husband Louis (Stanley Tucci) might be having an affair, she takes the letter to her Long Island family home and shows it to her mother (Anna Meara), who suggests she go to New York to confront Louis about it face-to-face.

And that’s what Eliza decides to do…oh wait, no, I’m sorry–Eliza, her overbearing mother, her pushover father (Pat McNamara), her wild sister Jo (Parker Posey), and Jo’s live-in intellectual boyfriend Carl (Liev Schreiber) all pile into the family station wagon to do a little sleuthing in the city.

Most of the film involves these oddball characters spending the day together. It’s clear that Jo’s parents (particularly the mother) like her boyfriend Carl more than her, as they care more for his comfort and are intrigued by his ideas for his in-the-works novel (whose story is so wild, I’ll leave it for you to discover) and his class-related ideals. (Carl’s my favorite character in the film–he’s full of sh*t, but he means well, he’s funny, and he has his moments of warmth.) The mother, played to an obnoxious level by Anne Meara, is so forward that when a young stranger helps the family unwind (after a hilariously inept would-be car chase scene), she invites herself and everyone else into his home for lunch–she even sends the young man and Eliza out to get groceries, I kid you not! (When the guy’s father comes home, even he isn’t able to get them to leave.) Jo doesn’t have much ambition, but she is someone for Eliza to confide in (something that pays off beautifully later in the film). And the father is so much of a pushover that it’s a relief when the mother ultimately crosses the line and he realizes he HAS to tell her off for the sake of everybody else in that damn car.

I’m sure Eliza wishes she had just stayed in bed that morning…

The family comes across other characters along the way, such as a writer played by Campbell Scott who strikes up conversation with Jo at a book-signing party (and does something that would’ve earned him a slap in the face if he did it with anyone else). In tracking her husband, Eliza finds herself at another party, where one of the guests clings to her, played by Marcia Gay Harden–I wish her entertaining character had more screen time.

There’s so much character in “The Daytrippers,” as well as so much lively charm. Even when the characters can be a little grating, particularly the one played by Anne Meara (who was a turn-off for some critics at the time, particularly Roger Ebert), I still stayed with them, which made the emotional resolution all the more intriguing and well-earned.

Now, the ending…I’ll tread lightly here because I don’t want to spoil it for anybody. The film’s payoff was shocking in a way for the 1990s, but how does it hold up a couple decades later? Well, it’s not quite as shocking anymore, but it’s still a timelessly heartbreaking discovery for the characters. How they ultimately respond to it is what makes the ending all the more special.

And that makes the film overall worth revisiting–it’s probably what earned its placement in the Criterion Collection too.

Even if the tone goes from playful to somber, it still works because the characters remain consistent throughout, even to a fault that the characters themselves are aware of. I admired the way Mottola chose to develop the story here.

And that is why I am quite baffled by Siskel & Ebert’s 1997 review of the film–they didn’t just dislike it; they flat-out HATED it because the characters were just too much for them to care about. Actually, that’s not the part that baffles me about it–what truly baffles me are Siskel’s way of summing up the film.

He said, and I’m quoting directly here, “Didn’t you wonder, ‘Why was this made?’ Where was the juice? What was the excitement here?? I couldn’t understand on anybody’s part! Why would anyone finance this? Why would anyone go out and make it?” DAMN!

That is one of the harshest quotes from any Siskel & Ebert review I have ever seen…and its context was a film that I really wish both of them had revisited.

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