I go to the drive-in as frequently as possible. No, I am not writing this review in 1977. Southern California still has a few drive-in theaters left. They're mostly run-down places, tucked away in warehouse-and-strip-club pocked sections of outlying suburbs (with the exception of one that's way out in the middle of the desert -- somebody gave it a nice refurbishing, tiki-themed it, installed a gift shop and now they serve carne asada fries at the concession). My friends and I go these places to half-watch movies that were seemingly designed to be half-watched in the first place: stuff like Van Helsing and American Wedding. And it doesn't really matter what's playing. We go because we like to sit on the end of a pick-up bed outside and talk out loud during the film. If it were the 1970s right now we'd be watching Corvette Summer or some Burt Reynolds movie there.
You don't have to know that writer-director-star Dax Shepard has, in interviews, gone on record about his love for drive-in films like Hooper and Smokey and the Bandit. They've directly inspired this car chase comedy and you can feel it during every second of its running time. It's loose and silly, it goes around in circles, it spins its wheels, it makes noise just to make noise, it has no real agenda besides good times.
Shepard plays a former bank robbery getaway driver going stir crazy in a tiny California town under witness protection after a plea bargain (his chosen name: Charlie Bronson, referencing the infamously violent U.K. criminal played by Tom Hardy in Bronson who, in turn, had re-named himself after the movie star). His girlfriend Annie (Kristin Bell) has a doctorate in nonviolent conflict resolution and is looking to take a university job in Los Angeles, a place Shepard's not allowed to go. His gallant solution to this relationship dilemma is to let her go, but not before driving her there in a conspicuously beautiful vintage Lincoln Continental that could out-race anything in The Fast and the Furious franchise. In true Bandit fashion there's a time constraint and people on their trail: his witness protection guardian (Tom Arnold in a sad minivan), a gay highway patrol officer (Jess Rowland), a redneck thief (David Koechner), Annie's jealous ex (Michael Rosenbaum) and, worst of all, Charlie's out-on-parole crime associates (Bradley Cooper, Joy Bryant, Ryan Hansen).
It feels pointless to nitpick and announce that none of this turns into to anything about anything. If "Who Cares?" were a genuine genre that historians recognized, it would wind up in a film studies textbook somewhere, someday. When summer event films like The Dark Night Rises aspire to and succeed as art, the casual lightweight movie about somewhat-likeable gearhead criminals vrooming around in fast cars and indulging in zany antics can get lost in the multiplex and ignored. That is a thing that should not be.
The cast has a chemistry that suggests they're all good friends when the cameras stop, the funny jokes are funny and the unfunny jokes are sometimes funny because they're not all that funny; the cars gleam and inspire machine-lust like the fetish objects they are and the rambling dialogue rambles like it should (with rape, strangely enough in this Tosh.O-meets-ancient-conservative-congressman moment, recurring as a topic of conversation among both the women and the men, one that locates that impossibly bizarre point on the map where audacity, confusion and offensiveness meet and then stare at each other for way too long, wondering where to go next).
Most importantly, it crashes and spins out and squeals and burn rubbers, leaving cool donut marks on wide open spaces where there's no physical or intellectual traffic. If the closest still-standing drive-in is a hundred miles away from you, enjoy the trip there because that's this movie's only true home.