The Daytrippers

The Daytrippers (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★

It appears to be yet another typical day in the D’Amico household. After Louis (Stanley Tucci) leaves for work, Eliza (Hope Davis) decides to clean the house. While putting things away, out of the corner of her eye, she spots a folded piece of paper lodged between the wall and cabinet. She picks it up and reads it. Her eyes reflect heartbreak: it turns out to be a love letter from a so-called “Sandy.” Following the initial shock, Eliza convinces herself not to make a big deal out of it. Her husband, after all, works in a publishing company so there is a chance that it is from a fictional work, all of it just a big misunderstanding. Still, she feels compelled to tell her parents about her discovery.

Written and directed by Greg Mottola, “The Daytrippers” is highly enjoyable because it is not clear whether it wants to be a comedy or a drama. It works that it is a little bit of both. Just about every giggle is almost immediately countered with a melancholic undertone. This makes the picture come alive, especially since we think we may have a true idea of what might be going on and where we expect the story is heading.

For instance, when Carl (Liev Schreiber) decides to talk about the novel he has just written about a man born with a dog’s head, it is funny because no one seems to really understand what it is all supposed to be about. Jo (Parker Posey), the dutiful girlfriend, appears to have his back. And yet at times Jo comes off somewhat desperate to try and pretend that her boyfriend’s novel has something profound to say. He looking good makes her look good. Many of us are likely to think Carl is being pretentious.

The script is clever and surprising because we often learn plenty about a character when he or she is not the center of attention. When I noticed that Eliza barely speaks, it made me question the method employed for characterization because the picture is supposed to be about her journey in finding out whether or not her husband is indeed loyal to her. Having realized that the material is also about how people react to those who have the chance to speak, there is a wealth of information embedded in the awkward pauses, subtle frowns, and looking (or not looking) someone in the eyes.

Eventually, Eliza visits the city to confront her husband with her family in tow for moral support. Although the car ride starts off relatively swimmingly, the travelers inevitably get on each other’s last nerves. Most fascinating is the way the emotional fissures in sharp-tongued Rita (Anne Meara) and taciturn Jim’s (Pat McNamara) longtime marriage are revealed. Rita’s little verbal jabs that most of us may consider sassy but entertaining later reveal an ugly sting. I wished that the older couple had more scenes together but at the same time I admired that the writing does not intend to iron everything out for the sake of our entertainment. In other words, it avoids feeling too movie-like.

It does, however, provide enough hints in terms of how each relationship will eventually turn out. We do not feel cheated from its seemingly lack of resolution because by allowing us to spend time with the characters, hearing them speak, and understanding their point of views, it trusts us to imagine what is next for them. “The Daytrippers” is smart about not putting people in defined boxes. Though its characters can be argued as archetypes, they are allowed to break the rules in surprise and welcome ways.

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