Ivan Reitman's name flashes across the screen during the opening credits of "Road Trip." He's listed as executive producer, and for one bright, shining moment, we in the audience entertain a very pleasant delusion.
This combination of college comedy, sex romp and gross-out picture, we deduce, may prove to be the Y2K version of "National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978), the raucous, Reitman-produced movie that launched John Belushi's big-screen career and boasted bright performances by a long list of additional stars-in-the-making.
The appearance of Tom Green, MTV's resident extreme comic, helps to sustain the fantasy of a classic genre updated for Generation Next. Green has a recurring bit as Barry, a professional student who's the over-the-top leader of a campus walking tour. Alternately staring off into space and leering at the attractive girls in his party, Barry makes up factoids about campus history, then relates a true yarn about the misadventures of his roommate, Josh (Breckin Meyer), and several of their pals. "This is the setting for one of the greatest stories ever told," Green announces, playing the kind of role that Chris Elliott might have taken a decade ago.
Then the tale begins, and our hopes for another "Animal House" burst like an overinflated balloon. "Road Trip" instead aims for the edgy humor of There's Something About Mary, but as directed and co-written by Todd Phillips, has neither the smarts nor the sass of the latter film.
Phillips (who helmed the 1998 documentary "Frat House," as well as portraits of rockers Phish and G.G. Allin), aims even lower than "Mary" and hits his target dead-center: "Road Trip" is tailor-made for those teens, young adults and others who thought last summer's slight American Pie was the funniest movie ever made. Phillips' feature-film debut, in other words, has the potential of turning into a summer box-office smash and, alas, spawning more of its kind.
The story hinges on a mix-up that's straight out of sitcom land. Josh, a likable enough student who's doing his best to keep up with the demands of academia and a social life, accidentally mails an incriminating videotape to his longtime girlfriend, Tiffany (Rachel Blanchard). The tape contains footage of Josh engaging in a bout of infidelity, visually damning evidence that's sure to dash their relationship. Interception of the package is his only option, but there's one catch: He lives in Ithaca, N.Y., and she attends school in Austin, Tex.
In short order, Josh gathers two close friends -- the fearless E.L. (Seann William Scott) and the brainy Rubin (Paulo Costanzo) -- and piles them into a car owned by the nerdy Kyle (DJ Qualls). A self-consciously wacky trek ensues, as the boys experience an automobile explosion, learn the pleasure and pain of sperm-bank deposits and encounter a cast of characters that includes Barry's oversexed grandpa (Edmund Lyndeck), an abusive motel clerk (Andy Dick) and Kyle's trigger-happy dad (Fred Ward). There's also a detour to a black fraternity house, a sequence that's reminiscent of the nightclub scene in "Animal House."
Back on campus, Barry derives great personal pleasure from the prospect of delivering a mouse to Rubin's pet boa constrictor. These gags aren't nearly as funny as intended, nor is anything else that transpires in "Road Trip." There's an important difference between this film and the more successful entries in the genre: The boisterous comedy of "Animal House," "There's Something About Mary," "Meatballs" and "Stripes" (the latter two directed by Reitman) erupted naturally, thanks to sharp acting, fertile scripts and a solid feel for storytelling. Bereft of such tools, Phillips and his crew have to force every bit of humor they attempt. Maybe things will run more smoothly next time, but not on this trip.