Sometimes hardship can bring friends together, and sometimes it can turn them into completely unrecognizable people. So it goes for “Scenic Route,” a micro-budget indie that attempts to refashion two known entities in Josh Duhamel and Dan Fogler into interesting onscreen personas after the former has come across as a listless action figure in loud blockbusters, and the latter a loud, disruptive presence in broad comedies. It’s a credit to the film that we discover the hidden depths inside both actors, though this drastic revision comes with being stuck in the desert for an hour and a half. We learn more about these two performers, but it’s not necessarily worth the effort expended. In other words, moviegoers will not be more drawn to Duhamel and Fogler, but it’s worth noting that both are permitted to become something else.
Duhamel and Fogler are Mitchell and Carter, two longtime friends who saw their careers take them in different directions. In Mitchell’s case, he has one: his finance position is lucrative enough that it’s given him the opportunity to finally tell his layabout writer friend that he’s better than him. As if the visual contrast wasn’t enough: Duhamel is movie-star handsome in a blue polo, tall and lean, while Fogler is rotund and unkempt, both playing to their stereotypes. It would probably help the movie had the roles been reversed, though it’s meant to be a compromise that Mitchell is on crutches, nursing a sprained ankle.
The two of them take off on a road trip, but engine issues strand them in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, a friendly conversation becomes two sensibilities at war. Mitchell absentmindedly wears his privilege on his sleeve, while Carter’s insecurity manifests itself in resentment. Carter’s one of those types who think living in his car and polishing unfinished novels is akin to the American dream, the type who has an amorphous, out-of-date understanding of “selling out.” When Mitchell discusses his issues with his marriage, Carter’s angered response is to suggest Mitchell become a free agent. Not unreasonable, but a note on which Carter doubles down when he sees his friend bristle at the notion.
The rest of the film plays like if Showtime commissioned a series based on “Gerry.” The characters seem to move in circles around their stalled truck as they debate whether to walk or wait on a stranded road. Along the way, they quarrel over lifestyle choices, revealing their hidden contempt for each other in a series of mechanical escalations courtesy of screenwriter Kyle Killen. Killen is a television writer and showrunner, and his structure that the film follows feels entirely too schematic, based upon certain pressure points we know the preppie and the artist are going to press. It’s like the discussions are meant to be repeatedly heated and cooled to the rhythm of commercial breaks.
“Scenic Route” eventually opts for violence, the two friends locking horns, the playing field leveled by Mitchell’s constant one-legged hopping. He opts for a drastic haircut, rocking a mohawk and establishing him as a bit more feral, likely an intentional nod to “Mad Max” in its similar borderline-apocalyptic desert location. Directors Kevin and Michael Goetz never get much mileage out of the scenery, title notwithstanding; this mostly feels like what it is, a two-hander that could take place in basically any isolated location. Centering this on the actors and ignoring the hallucinogenic potential of being trapped in the desert without food or drink keeps the film stage-ridden, the stakes never escalating beyond just two people.
Duhamel and Fogler both expose the limitations of such a concept with performances that are a little too in-sync. They don’t have the rhythms or cadences of lifelong friends, and while their conflict is believable, it’s not based in any idea that these two have ever shared common interests. Duhamel’s performance is believable in that it reflects an upper class asshole that vainly clings to his social status, even if it means hurting his loved ones. It’s the darker shade that Bradley Cooper is always hinting at in his serious roles. Fogler’s Carter is a sketchier creation, one that is almost immediately adversarial at the start of the film. He slowly walks his way down from antagonistic to desperate, a screenwriting shortcut that builds to the conflict quicker. For “Scenic Route,” it doesn’t seem to be the journey as much as the destination: seeing two sorta-friends wailing on each other feels like the shortcut a better movie never made. [C]