Despite overwhelmingly negative reviews of this movie, I decided to rent it. Due to the slapstick nature of the trailer, I was prepared to dislike it, but I actually enjoyed it, especially due to the presence of the Gornicke family.
The movie begins with Bob Munro (Robin Williams) tucking in his daughter, Cassie, at night, telling her a bedtime story that includes a sock puppet and funny voices. Cassie expresses expresses the desire to never get married because she never wants to move away from her family. Fast forward and Cassie (Joanna “Jojo” Levesque) is a teenager and complaining to her father about how lame he is as he drives to pick a friend of Cassie's to accompany the family at a company picnic. Bob is an executive as a soft drink company. At the company, Bob is embarrassed when Cassie's friend, who is some kind of eco/animal/health activist, dumps some kind of green goo on his boss (Will Arnett). Bob is punished when his boss decides, in lieu of firing him, to have him present a merger proposal to a grassroots soda company in Boulder, Colorado called Alpine Soda. Though the family was supposed to vacationing together in Hawaii during this time, Bob rents an RV and tells the family that they will be road-tripping to the Rockies instead.
Naturally, everything that can go wrong does go wrong including the parking brake during out to be faulty, a blocked sewage line, raccoon infestation, Bob hitting almost everything that holds still long enough.
Initially, I strongly disliked Cassie's character, who was the stereotypical bratty teenager daughter. This had nothing to do with Levesque's acting and everything to do with the whiny, sarcastic, self-involved characterization of the girl. She was appallingly rude and contemptuous to her parents to the point of giving her father “the finger” (off screen). She was the most averse to the RV trip, exasperatedly rolling her eyes that ever mishap, and acting like such a city mouse. I tended to like her younger brother, Carl (Josh Hutcherson) more. His characterization was minimal, but included being a small boy who wanted to be a body-builder and enjoyed rap music.
Initially, I was not sympathetic to this family at all. They lived in a huge, upper-class home in an affluent Blue State neighborhood. Their kitchen alone was spacious with glossy granite counter tops and stainless steel fixtures. Materially, the family was very well off and they were obviously more hotel people than camping people. They're probably the kind of people who consider any place with a plethora of trees to be “the country.” Except for Bob, who initiated this trip for his own self-serving purposes, nobody wanted to make the best of the situation or adapt. Nobody tries to see a bigger picture, the brighter side, the funny part of a situation. They're all just decidedly miserable. Initially, everybody complains about the RV itself, how boring the trip is, Bob's driving, and when-is-dinner-going-to-be-ready (without offering to help), that I almost didn't care about any of these people.
The movie picks up dramatically when the Munro family arrives to their first RV park and meets the Gornicke family, including patriarch Travis (Jeff Daniels), Mary Jo (Kristin Chenoweth) and children Earl (Hunter Parrish), Moon (director's daughter, Chloe Sonnenfeld) and Billy (Alex Ferris). This family made the movie for me. They RV'd around the country full-time in a beautiful conversion bus, a 1948 Flxible Clipper, selling musical car horns and beauty products to finance their lifestyle. They were just so welcoming, friendly, hospitable, and kind. After the septic tank of the Munro's RV goes awry, Bob meets the male Gornickes when they help him clean up and also scrub down the RV for no reason except to be nice. They furthermore invite them to dinner and insist on thinking the best about the Munro family. The Munros do not like the Gornickes at all because they are too happy and too nice. Mary Jo and Travis are still in love like newlyweds, they love their children, and their children love their parents and get along well with each other. The Gornicke’s were close-knit family, home-schooled their kids (which earned a judgmentally toned “oohhh” from Jamie Munro, played by Cheryl Hines), sang folksy songs together, and were so happy together. I think they were adorable. I wish the movie was about them instead, honestly. How guileless they were was so refreshing. The Munros, however, saw their camp as a bizarre place of country-accented Red Staters and group song, and treated them with forced, pained-smiled, politeness and barely veiled snootiness.
The movie continues with the Munros trying to ditch the Gornickes only to coincidentally run into them once, at which point Bob loses his laptop which he has been using to covertly work on the merger without his family's knowledge. The Gornicke family obtains it after they help a hitchhiker who had found and taken Bob's laptop, and decide to continue to Colorado so that they can reunite Bob and his laptop because the Gornickes are just nice like that. Of course, the Munros think that the family are following them and continuously try to lose them. Interestingly, their avoidance of the Gornickes only ever hurts them (and their RV which continuoulsy dilapidates throughout the film).
I think it is the Gornicke family that drives home the best parts of the film. The Munros are at least upper-middle class, if not outright wealthy, and have every materialistic comfort and luxery, but as a family unit, they are not happy. In fact, they are dysfunction and bickering. Their lives have become so busy maintaining a lifestyle that they have lost touch with their relationships with each other. The Gornicke family, by contrast, lives in roughly 400 square feet of space. All the possessions they own fit into a bus. The Gornicke family works from home, is educated at home, and live their lives together on the road, centered around each other, and they are truly happy and free. By the end of the film, the Munros find that they have misjudged the Gornickes as happy-go-lucky yokels when they are really dedicated, hard-working, fair, patient, kind, nonjudgmental, and friendly people, good and true to the bone. By the time the Munro family has become honest with each other, simplified, and resolved to mend their relationships, the kids are even thankful for the trip, asking if they can continue on to Yellowstone.
I think what shines in the film is the simple message about about family over things. Although the film sometimes is overly reliant on gross-out and slap stick humor, I think there truly is a heart to the film that the Gornicke family brings to it. It would be good viewing for a family if they could talk about the two families, compare their lifestyles, priorities, and happiness.