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.

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.)

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.

But the motorhome is not merely a useful setting. It's a powerful symbol. And, with apologies to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, it's uniquely American.

Few countries even have the physical space to make motorhome travel viable, let alone the roads. Try taking a cross-country road trip in Japan or Ireland or Korea -- you'll be done before lunch. Only Americans, with our lust for the open road, cult of bigness, and obsession with anything that has wheels and a motor, could embrace the RV with such ferocity. Only here could you find millions of people -- an entire subculture -- devoted to the idea that one should never travel without bringing an entire house along with them. The RV, in all its flat-screened, king-sized, satellite-dish-on-top glory, 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. Since Lucy and Desi, the RV has as promised the best of both -- the freedom of the open road with all the comforts of home.

On film, the RV is such a potent symbol of American life it sometimes literally saves the nation, like a John Wayne on Wheels. In Stripes, for instance, Bill Murray uses an EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle to defeat communism. Independence Day has Randy Quaid leading a motorhome army of against alien invaders. The defense of America is no less overt in We're the Millers: The villain only gets his final comeuppance -- under Fourth of July fireworks, no less -- after he says something mean about America.

Most frequently, though, the rescue-by-RV is more subtle. Only the American family is saved. Or surrogate family. The Millers, after all, are not only composed of a drug-dealer dad, ex-stripper mom, and street urchin kids. They aren't even related -- by blood or matrimony -- and so reflect a national anxiety over the decline of the traditional, nuclear family. At one angry moment, pseudo-father David points out that it's a fake family by yelling "We're not the Brady Bunch!"

Given that the Brady family was also non-traditional, and fictional characters to boot, the line dripped with enough postmodern meta-media-on-media irony to overwhelm Don DeLillo.

The Millers' do become "real," of course, and their coalescence into a unit reassures the audience that family can be whatever we make it. They even get their suburban home with a white picket fence. But it's an RV that makes it all possible. Huge, heavy, conspicuously consuming fossil fuels, and festooned with gadgets of debatable necessity, the RV is figuratively and literally their vehicle for finding the American dream.