When they're first seen, driving home through the bland suburbs of Long Island after Thanksgiving dinner, Eliza (Hope Davis) and Louis (Stanley Tucci) seem like a happy, well-adjusted couple. You come to learn their small house is comfortable, their relationship affectionate, their routine established.
After he leaves for his commute to a Manhattan publishing house the next morning, Eliza finds a love letter from someone named Sandy, complete with a few lines from poet Andrew Marvell's "The Definition of Love." She takes the note over to her parents' house where her younger sister Jo (Parker Posey) is visiting with her fatuous boyfriend Carl (Liev Schreiber).
At the kitchen table, they pass around and discuss the letter, with Eliza hoping someone may be able to convince her it doesn't really mean what she knows deep down it does. Her overbearing mother, Rita (Anne Meara), insists they head into Manhattan to confront Louis. With the quiet Malone family patriarch, Jim (Pat McNamara), at the wheel, they pile into the station wagon for a day of bittersweet, comic discoveries.
The Daytrippers, writer-director Greg Mottola's sweet-natured ode to a dysfunctional family, is well-written and superbly acted. As this motley group searches for the errant Louis, their personalities are systematically broken down to their essential elements.
Mottola uses the cultural divide between Manhattan and the suburbs -- a gulf much larger than the short driving distance would indicate -- as a source of the film's humor, but he manages to keep the characters from becoming stereotypical buffoons. They go into "the city" like tourists, exploring unfamiliar turf and having encounters that sometimes confirm their beliefs and other times shock them into a painful re-evaluation of their self-delusions.
What The Daytrippers has to say is hardly new -- that the facade people present to the world is constructed from carefully maintained lies -- and it's apparent early on that Mottola has constructed the day as a series of enlightening upheavals of the status quo.
But even though it's not difficult to see where this particular road is heading, it's still worth going along for the ride.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].