Monday, February 14, 2011


what's your price for flight?"
-Night Ranger

The 1991 film Motorama isn't the strangest road trip movie I've ever seen, after all, there's no corpse tied to the roof of the protagonist's car as in both Invitation au voyage and Highway 61. It's not the glossiest film either, that honor would go to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It's not as quirky as Goodbye Porkpie or Rikky and Pete. It's not as existential as Vanishing Point or Easy Rider. However, it does feature the only 10-year old boy driving a red convertible '68 Mustang across a mythical land whose states sound suspiciously like oil company names. And that distinction makes it fairly unique in the road trip genre.

The concept of an obnoxious, self-serving tyke as the anti-hero of the film is the brilliant, unique conceit that initially drew me in, and kept me watching late one night in the early '90's when I first channel-hopped onto Motorama. The kid may be a metaphor for the selfish, narcissistic inner child in all of us, but that's only the beginning of the script's cleverness. There's also the idea that almost none of the other characters recognize him as a child because they are too wrapped up in their own bent obsessions.

Joseph Minion who wrote a road trip movie of another sort in After Hours, does an excellent job of creating an alternate reality America with a truckload of symbolism about our car culture. From the gas station attendant he meets early in the movie named Phil, to the decrepit, graveyard-like oil fields he passes near the end, our boy Gus (Gas?), clearly lives in a strange auto-centric parallel universe. The title of the film itself comes from a game Gus immediately becomes obsessed with that involves collecting peel off cards at service stations which spell out Motorama.

Thematically, the film is like any other road trip movie, the character takes a journey representing his life and learns something about himself at the end. But it's the people he meets along the way that give the movie its subversive twist. Unlike most road trip movies where the lead character is helped along by kindly folks met on the journey, Gus is hampered, delayed and even waylaid by the surreal characters he meets during his odyssey. He'd actually prefer to just get to his destination (dream) without stopping, but he needs money and gas to continue his quest (obsession).

Half the enjoyment of the movie comes from spotting the recognizable character actors or pop culture icons that inhabit the film. It's not stunt casting, most of the actors do a fine job of playing the needy, obsessive and self-centered characters, all of which are chasing their own mildly warped dreams in this weird, but somehow familiar, universe. The standouts are John Diehl, as the gas station attendant Phil, who likes the local law enforcement officer played by Robert Picardo just a bit too much; Flea as an easily bribed, way to eager to please busboy, and of course the greedy Gus, who is obsessed with getting his golden ticket, is played very well by Jordon Christopher Michael. There are also a ton of HoF character actors that show up briefly and add to the strange atmosphere like Dick Miller, Mary Woronov and Michael J Pollard.

The film looks really good thanks in large part to its glossy red Ford Mustang which is just as much a co-star as Kowalski's white Challenger is in Vanishing Point. There are some great horizon shots of the Utah landscape as well that really look good and help out symbolically. The Motorama signs along the highway look cooly retro and add to the odd feel of the movie.

With the characters and look of the film so interesting, the director, Barry Shils, did a restrained, competent job and avoided ramping up the quirkiness with unnecessary camera tricks. The film could have easily been ruined by bad directing or editing decisions, but the filmmaker was smart enough to get out of the way and let the movie speak for itself. The original soundtrack, by former Police guitarist Andy Summers, is similarly unobtrusive and only emphasizes the proceedings when appropriate. 

This movie is such an oddity, I don't know if anyone could love it on the first viewing. I was definitely intrigued the first time I watched it, but the off-beat tone and characters kind of threw me. However, each additional time I enter the world of Motorama, makes me appreciate it more. I can easily see it becoming a favorite despite the fact it has no flashy drag queens, tied down corpses or existential stoner stuff in it.

Score 8/10


  1. Great writeup! I only saw this a few months ago and felt, as you said, that it was interesting and weird and deep but that I really wouldn't feel anything until I watched it again. Lo and behold, I make a random suburban trip to Big Lots and grab it for $3. Wish to death the DVD had some special features, but alas. Still, you make me want to pop it on the next chance I get.

  2. Thanks for suggesting the post Emily, it was fun ruminating on this weird little gem. It is a film that gets more enjoyable once you know what to expect. Well worth a $3 purchase!