The road comedy has had a long and lustrous life in Hollywood, from Due Date to Little Miss Sunshine, Planes, Trains and Automobiles to the the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby Road to… pictures. WIth the latest addition to the genre — the Melissa McCarthy/Jason Bateman comedy Identity Thief — hitting theaters today, we turned to its screenwriter, Craig Mazin (The Hangover Part II), to talk with him about what makes this sturdy genre tick.
“Even though the movie is a road trip movie, I didn’t think of it specifically as part of that genre,” says Mazin, who also holds forth on the business and art of screenwriting in his terrific weekly podcast with fellow writer John August (Frankenweenie). “What happens is just having two people in a car on the road, the genre imposes itself. You star to feel those conventions happening. In a strange way, you want them to happen.”
So what are those conventions?
1. Location, Location, Location
In Identity Thief, a mild-mannered money manager named Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman) falls for a phishing scam by a lifelong con artist named Diana (Melissa McCarthy), and the only way to get his identity back is to find Diana at her home in Florida and bring her back to the authorities in Denver, where he lives.
It’s a nice stretch of road for the characters to travel, but if Mazin had has his way, Diana would have been dancing with Eric Stonestreet’s “Big Chuck” in a very different location. “I wanted a road trip that went from Portland, Ore. to Boston,” he says. “I think part of road trips is showing you the country. I’ve done the northern route across the United States. It’s a beautiful drive and it’s underserved. Road trip comedies seem to want to go through the middle of the country, or up and down a coast. And there’s that northern route where you go through the Badlands and through the rust belt. I love that America. That was the story I wanted to tell.”
Alas, the generous tax breaks for film production in Georgia proved too tantalizing for the suits at Universal to ignore. “Their initial suggestion was, ‘How about a road trip from Miami to Atlanta?’” says Mazin with a chuckle. “I said that’s really not a road trip. That’s just a drive. That’s a ‘drive movie.’ So when all was said and done, the best we could do was Florida to Denver, which is a fairly nondescript road trip. Not my first choice, what can I say?”
2. Find the Right Set of Wheels — or Several Sets, If Need Be
Throughout their cross-country journey, Sandy and Diana keep finding themselves forced to change vehicles, and not for the better. “For me it wasn’t so much that I wanted to change cars; I just wanted to make the trip difficult,” says Mazin. “[Director] Seth [Gordon] and I both…wanted to seem them going through a real hardship. In part that meant that at times, cars were going to be wrecked and destroyed and knocked over and tumbled over and stolen. So they were always scrounging [for transportation]. It wasn’t so much that we hated the idea of one car; we just liked the idea that they kept losing their car.”
3. Keep the Pressure On — But Not Too Much
Many road comedies aren’t just about travel; they’re also about pursuit. In Identity Thief, Sandy and Diana are hunted by two sets of adversaries hot on their tail: Crime world enforcers played by Genesis Rodriguez and hip-hop artist T.I. (pictured, left), who are after Diana for selling a set of bad credit cards; and a bounty hunter played by Robert Patrick (pictured, right) who’s chasing Diana for skipping a court date.
Their presence certainly raises the stakes. But Mazin was wary of focusing too much on them at the expense of Sandy and Diana. “My instinct was that the real antagonism of the movie was between the two of them,” he says. “The outside antagonists, to me, I thought one good obstacle out there was a good thing. But the studio, um, they like villains.” He laughs. “I think they would have wanted three or four villains, and we settled on two….I understood why it was there and why we needed to do it. It’s just that, in truth, I could have written this movie without anyone going after them. I love the movie, I’m really proud of it — but what I’m proud of the most is [Sandy and Diana]. I think that we did a pretty good job of keeping the criminals on their tail. Certainly helped put pressure on their drive. But I’m mostly fond of the two of them.”
4. Keep the Focus on the Characters, Not the Car
The benefit of a road comedy is that the momentum for the plot is baked right into the physical journey of the characters — but it means nothing if our hero(es) don’t change along with the scenery. “In road trip movies in general,” says Mazin, “those early scenes where two people are sitting together in a car are a chance for you to set the groundwork for their incompatibility. When you get in the car and shut the doors and the windows are up and you’re on the highway, you are forced into a bubble of strange intimacy. It is the closest and quietest two people can get to each other outside of the bedroom. And in those moments, strange things come out, because there is a sense of safety and isolation from the world around you.
“The nice thing later on when they get back in the car, you can see things have changed. Everytime they’re alone together in a car, it seems like they’ve moved five years ahead in some kind of strange marriage. If you just take the scenes out of the two people in the car, you can track the evolution of the story…. For me, I guess when I watch the movie, the part that I respond to the most ultimately are those moments that are just really the two of them.”