Roadside Prophets is a 1992 cult road movie, an Easy Rider played mostly for laughs.
Two blue collar southern California motorcycle riders meet at work one day, and hang out at a bar that evening. As one suggests they take a trip to a family-owned hole-in-the-wall casino he really likes in Nevada, he is electrocuted playing a video game. His “friend” (who has known him for a few hours) decides it would be fitting to take his ashes to the casino he spoke of, and sets out on the road to do so. He is badgered by an annoying kid stranger on a motorcycle to let him accompany him, which he eventually agrees to, for no apparent reason beyond that the movie needs two characters to make the journey for dramatic purposes. It takes them awhile to figure out what city and what casino the dead guy meant, and along the way they encounter various quirky characters (several played by ’60s counterculture figures like Arlo Guthrie and Timothy Leary), who provide comic relief and dime store philosophy.
The movie falls flat for me, for multiple reasons.
One of the less important ones is there are numerous cultural, geographical, logistical things that don’t add up. It has the feel of a movie a foreigner might put together who has seen some movies and TV shows from America and inferred as best he can what it’s probably like, but doesn’t have it all straight (rather like the Japanese attempt at a Christmas card that my friend told me about a long time ago of Santa Claus being crucified—the ingredients are fine, but the way they’re put together is decidedly not).
For one thing, they first drive from southern California to Las Vegas (by way of Barstow, which is specifically mentioned). This is depicted as a multiple day ride, through desolate desert, with little or no traffic except them, empty except for occasional ramshackle roadside diners and bars and such (so they can encounter some of the film’s weirdos).
The problem is, in real life it’s a two hour or so drive from Barstow to Las Vegas, and it’s a conventional interstate highway, very heavily traveled, with the typical fast food joints and the like that pop up along any interstate. Now it’s possible they’re taking some extraordinarily circuitous route instead, but no reason is given as to why they would be. In fact, they’re in something of a hurry to get where they’re going.
For another example, they stop at a Motel 6 that has a lounge act. (It’s not called Motel 6, but that’s obviously what it’s supposed to be, or an analogous chain.) But that’s the wrong level of motel to have a lounge act. There are a few mid-level motel chains with some locations with lounges and lounge acts, but not a Motel 6.
But more importantly, as hard as the movie tries, the quirky characters just aren’t very entertaining. Their humor got no more than an occasional smile from me, and their philosophy only occasionally rises slightly above empty jargon or platitudes.
For that matter, the two main characters don’t do it for me. (I don’t think they’re even actors, which may partly explain it. I think they were just members of bands the filmmaker liked.) The older one is wooden and uninteresting, and his kid sidekick is, as I mentioned, annoying.
You know, a lot of these problems could be solved if before people make a film like this they’d just watch Sudden Manhattan, one of my all-time favorite unknown movies. (Well, it wouldn’t really have helped here, since Sudden Manhattan didn’t exist in 1992, but I still feel like making the point.) That’s how you do quirky characters and oddball situations. Almost every line, every look on the characters’ faces in that movie is exactly right for a quirky indie comedy. It’s laugh out loud funny to me even on multiple viewings. You could cherry pick the sharpest two minutes of Roadside Prophets and I doubt it would surpass the weakest two minutes of Sudden Manhattan for cleverness and humor.
Roadside Prophets is certainly not the worst movie I’ve written about so far. It’s easy to follow and mildly amusing here and there. It’s an unchallenging, inoffensive way to spend an hour and a half.