*½/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras B
starring Paul Walker, Steve Zahn, Leelee Sobieski, Matthew Kimbrough
screenplay by Clay Tarver & JJ Abrams
directed by John Dahl
by Walter Chaw John Dahl's latest foray into knock-off B-movie territory is Joy Ride, a film that indulges an awkward dedication to hiding the face of its villain (which results in the biggest cheat of the film at its conclusion), presents predictably misogynistic victimizations for both of its female characters (followed by weak-wristed salvations), and demands an ironclad suspension of disbelief that the bad guy is omniscient, omnipresent, and only ruthless when there isn't a long speech to be made. The joyless Joy Ride is a leaden collection of cheap thriller clichés redolent with the flop-sweat stench of stale desperation and clumsy sleight-of-hand, a stultifying series of promising set-ups with threadbare pay-offs. The film drives home its cautionary message against childishness with an increasing immaturity--it's the equivalent of burying a toddler up to the neck for throwing a tantrum, and though it will predictably (and fairly) be compared against The Hitcher and Duel, the most telling stolen moment in Joy Ride is a cornfield intrigue that substitutes the evil crop duster from North by Northwest for a rumbling semi tractor-trailer that somehow locates its prey in the dead of night amongst concealing stalks.
Once heralded as a strong voice in a fizzled early '90's noir revival (but gradually revealed as a barely serviceable hack, his Rounders notwithstanding), Dahl honours the genre of his one-time fame in Joy Ride to the extent that it's mostly shot at night and all of the characters are fallen, unlikable, and consistently moronic. Selling his plane ticket for an old clunker of a car to drive across America, the barely sentient Lewis (Paul Walker) has a libidinous ulterior motive: to pick up Venna (Leelee Sobieski, once again miscast as an object of desire)--a woman he's met through the Internet--from Boulder, Colorado. Their method of introduction seems to suggest the stunted budding of a gauche subtext when CB radio communication is later referred to as "a prehistoric Internet," but perhaps it is best to leave any extratextual readings of Joy Ride alone.
After springing his wayward spaz of a brother, Fuller (Steve Zahn), from a Salt Lake City jail (to be fair, it probably doesn't take much to be put in a Utah jail), the siblings decide to play a harmless little short-wave prank on a snarling voice calling itself "Rusty Nail" (Matthew Kimbrough, sounding just like Ted Levine from The Silence of the Lambs--nudge nudge). Finding themselves stalked from that night until the end of the film--and beyond? [cue ominous musical sting]--Lewis and Fuller place themselves in increasingly ludicrous situations, culminating in walking into a diner naked and ordering a dozen cheeseburgers. By way of punchline for a reasonably-effective scenario, the beehived truck stop waitress 'Flo's' around a mouthful of gum, "You want fries with that?"
As with the film's other set-pieces, that diner scene builds with an adequate amount of believability and tension but has a lame closer. A nice, if stunningly predictable, car chase down a deserted county lane ends with the dead-end path version of the old "cat through a window" bait and switch; a series of strange sounds overheard in the pregnant silence of a Motel 6 is dismissed the next morning with the appearance of a studiously affected country cop; and an extended puzzle involving a mile of packing tape, a shotgun, and a doorknob is resolved off camera. Yet the main fault of Joy Ride isn't its frustrated inability to bring itself to anything resembling a credible or cathartic summit, nor is it in a collection of irritating characters who are either tragically overplayed or hilariously misplayed. No, Joy Ride's fatal flaw is very simply that it banks on audience desperation for escapism.
The technically sound Joy Ride is plotted with such stupidity and performed so gratingly that most of the tension of the piece arises from the hope that Rusty Nail (visually represented by an equalizer level display that crosses Kit the Trans Am with a Cylon) finally slaughters our trio of bathetic anti-heroes, who, after all, have been asking for it all along. Take it as a bad sign whenever the sadistic torture and death of one's erstwhile protagonists is the only thing that might possibly save the film they inhabit. Originally published: October 5, 2001.
by Bill Chambers Joy Ride on DVD proves that scenarists Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams wrote themselves into a corner they couldn't get out of not once but four times. This Special Edition includes perhaps the longest alternative ending in the format's short history (29 minutes!) as well as three variations on the current finale, one of which exists only in storyboard form. As for the parallel-universe third act, it makes Rusty Nail into a far more ominous presence than he would become in the release version, but there's little visceral impact to any of its action and its closing shot is simply wan. Prior to viewing Joy Ride, I wondered if there's any satisfying way to end the film's conceit; I still do. All four endings feature ruminative optional commentary from director John Dahl or Tarver and Abrams (who give you the silent treatment for 14 minutes during the half-hour one), while Leelee Sobieski chimes in alone over her deleted kissing scene with Steve Zahn, bringing to the table a quick Kubrick anecdote and a profession of guilt about smooching Zahn, whose wife was pregnant at the time.
The deleted scraps (of poor video quality, I should advise) can be incorporated into the film presentation by selecting the white-rabbit feature "More Than One Joy Ride" (you'll be alerted to bonus material by a crass Rusty Nail icon). Meanwhile, Sobieski and Zahn are stitched together for one of a trio of commentaries that accompany the film proper; Zahn quickly earns our ire by providing sound effects for the automobiles on-screen. Clay and Tarver discuss the genesis of the screenplay in their yak-track, all the time missing some of the film's most obvious sources (the tail-light gag is really lifted whole cloth from the Drew Barrymore prologue of Scream, isn't it?), and the pause-prone Dahl contributes the third and best rap session. As bad as Joy Ride is, Dahl mounts a convincing case for how much worse it could've gone down without his involvement.
Rounding out the package are a useless promotional featurette, the theatrical trailer, and a sequence ("More Than One Rusty Nail") wherein we can weigh temp voices for Rusty Nail (the too-fey Eric Roberts and the too-anonymous Stephen Shellen) against Ted Levine's. Joy Ride arrives on DVD in a ravishing 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with clever 5.1 Dolby Digital audio--one of the film's strengths is its soundmix, which doesn't overdo the bass on Rusty Nail's rig and knows just when to jangle our nerves from behind. Originally published: February 24, 2002.