The Ultimate American Movie Trope: A Road Trip in a Motorhome

Campers and RVs make for great settings in comedies, but they're also potent symbols of our national character.
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Warner Bros.

In the raunchy but sweet comedy We're the Millers, which opened last weekend, small-time drug dealer David has to transport a shipment of drugs across the Mexican border. Guys traveling solo across the border tend to look a little suspicious, David learns -- so he enlists a stripper and two teenagers to pose as his ultra-conventional American brood and promises to pay them all a chunk of cash once the deal goes down.

To escort the bunch south to Mexico (and to effectively hide the weed), David's boss provides a huge, gleaming, fully decked-out RV.

We're the Millers, starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis, is fresh and unexpected, with whiplash-quick, hyper-hip banter, and genuine sweetness underneath its cynical exterior. But the film also works on the strength of its fantastic, beautifully executed premise. It's a deeply satisfying reworking of a classic American film trope: the family RV road trip.

Films using a recreational vehicle -- like a trailer, camper, bus, or motorhome -- as their main setting are so popular, with such a rich and often schlocky history, that virtually every film genre has explored their cinematic possibilities. From Dusk Till Dawn is an RV-based thriller. Race With the Devil is horror. Slither with James Caan is action-adventure. RVs certainly have a rich history in sci-fi. Think of Simon Pegg in Paul, or Brad Pitt driving a camper at the start of World War Z. Arguably Mel Brooks' Star Wars spoof Spaceballs! counts as a motorhome movie, too, given that Brooks recast the Millennium Falcon as a flying Winnebago.

But the RV trip as a film premise unquestionably works best for comedies, as evidenced by the first real example of the form. Like so many other elements of the American family comedy, the RV as a premise was pioneered by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. In 1952, Lucy and Desi made The Long Long Trailer, playing newlyweds who buy a well-appointed trailer instead of a traditional home. Hilarity ensues, and every family road trip film since owes a debt to Lucy and Desi's basic premise. That includes slapstick versions like Meet the Fockers and Robin Williams's saccharine RV, the serio-comic About Schmidt, and Lost in America. Kenny Rogers in Six-Pack was robbed of an Oscar. (AMC's Breaking Bad refits this moviemaking trope for TV, too, by setting many of its most comical scenes in an RV.)

The RV is an attempt to reconcile two opposing impulses in the national character: our longing for the frontier and the dream of homeownership, of settling down in a house with white picket fence.

It's not surprising that road trips are a popular cinematic device. Just like in real-life, the forced togetherness and stress of travel is a surefire recipe for family conflict. They test and ultimately strengthen family bonds.

Presented by

Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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