There’s a scene early in Interstate 60: Episodes of the Road that sets both the tone and the theme of this peculiar little comedy. Ray, an eccentric doctor played by the eccentric Christopher Lloyd in a cameo, is administering a test of awareness to the film’s protagonist, who has just been concussed by a falling paint bucket. Rather than a standard test of awareness, Ray opts to test Neal with a card trick to see if Neal catches it. The trick is too clever for me to want to spoil it here, as a significant part of the delight of it is seeing it for yourself. Neal doesn’t pass, but as Ray notes, most people don’t. The trick demonstrates that most people see only what they expect to see… and that once you’ve seen the truth of a situation, you are more prepared to see what is actually there, no matter how odd or unexpected it is. But to see it, you have to be ready to see it. You have to be primed to look at things you never questioned, to look for things which — as far as you were aware — were never there.
There is no Interstate 60. This may not be readily apparent for people who aren’t intimately familiar with the Interstate Highway System, but the movie helpfully points this out early on. And yet, there is. Neal (James Marsden) finds himself traveling the rarely-traveled road when a birthday wish leads to unexpected opportunities. Neal is a struggling artist, working at a delivery warehouse by nights so he doesn’t have to have his father’s financial support. His father (John Bourgeois) is a high-power attorney who wants his son to follow in his footsteps, from career to car. Neal feels trapped by his life, and apathetic to making his own decisions; he makes major decisions by going to a website that’s a glorified magic 8-ball. For his birthday wish, Neal wishes for “an answer”; nothing more specific than that. And then he finds himself swept along in a road trip, instigated by Ray and accompanied by a strange fellow named O.W. Grant.
The face of a man you can trust?
Grant, played by Gary Oldman, is an odd character. He’s even more eccentric than Ray, wearing a suit and smoking a meerschaum pipe while riding a bicycle. His hair is bright red — whether it’s supposed to be dyed or whether the makeup artists simply dyed Oldman’s hair and expect us to take it at face value is unclear; either way is arguably appropriate. He claims to be half-Cherokee, half-Leprechaun, and he’s in the business of granting wishes… or rather, granting one wish. One Wish Grant. He travels around America, finding people who are ready to make a wish, and if it amuses him, he’ll grant it… of course, his amusement may well come at the wisher’s expense, as he is fond of messing with peoples’ heads and is put off by the way most people wish for wealth or power. Michael J. Fox has an early cameo which demonstrates how a poorly chosen wish can work against a person.
He’s an entertaining character, seldom coming out with a direct joke but humorous in a constant low-key manner. Neal, by contrast, starts off a bit more vague, befitting his directionless life, gradually becoming more of his own man and a free spirit akin to Grant. Neal’s mission — to deliver a package entrusted to him by Ray, and to hopefully meet his dream girl (Amy Smart) — provides him the opportunity to meet even more eccentric characters. Interstate 60 officially doesn’t exist, even in the film, but it can be found by those who don’t fit in with normal reality, and Neal’s road trip is filled with encounters with these people. Some of them are other people whose lives have been touched by O.W. Grant; some of them are on their own missions. Many are played by well-known actors in brief cameos. Chris Cooper memorably plays a lawyer who has come to loathe lying. Amy Jo Johnson plays a nymphomaniac looking for the perfect good time. Kurt Russell plays a small town sheriff in a town with a very dark secret. These characters and several others enliven the trip with comedy and a sense of erratic purpose. There’s an element of danger, as well; an interstate that is only driven by those who have disconnected from normal reality is a good place to find somebody undergoing a psychotic break, and Neal is warned from the outset that there’s a killer on the road.
But that’s no reason not to pick up a hitchhiker and take a detour in the middle of the night, is it?
Ostensibly a simple road trip story, Interstate 60 is constantly interesting and frequently funny. The secondary characters liven up the film, giving it more entertainment value than simply Neal’s personal growth, but Neal’s story has a fair amount of substance on its own. It’s curious that the film, made in 2002, did not get a wide release. It was written and directed by Bob Gale, who wrote and produced the Back to the Future trilogy, and features several well-known actors in minor roles — and of course, leads Marsden and Oldman were both well-known at that point as well. Had it been given a wide release, it might well have been a significant success, and would certainly have been profitable given its $7 million budget. But after screening at a few film festivals, no major distributor picked it up, and it went direct to video.
I first heard about the film from a friend of mine, and kept an eye out for the opportunity to see it. I am very glad for the recommendation, as I found the film charming, funny, and very entertaining. Like the fictional highway of its title, Interstate 60: Episodes of the Road is something you’re unlikely to find unless somebody shows you the way… but once found, it’s well worth the trip.