The Daytrippers: Alone, Together

The Daytrippers came out in theaters in 1997, back when I was in graduate school at NYU. That was a year when you could rent videotapes everywhere—at Blockbuster, but also at a Laundromat or a bodega. There were still phone booths and answering machines. People smoked. If you filmed an independent movie in Manhattan on the cheap, as first-time director Greg Mottola did, the World Trade Center would peek out from behind a corner, an anchor that let you know where you were, near Ben’s Pizza on Spring Street. I caught the movie at the Angelika Film Center, thinking it might be my taste: a scrappy, tender New York comedy starring actors I adored, including Liev Schreiber and Parker Posey. But it became something more to me, a touchstone and a talisman, for reasons that are still hard to describe. I watched The Daytrippers a bunch of times, until I’d memorized it—which came in handy, once the movie vanished, for a long time, from the cultural landscape in the era of streaming video.

At the time it debuted, The Daytrippers was part of a decade-long wave of intimate, dialogue-driven independent movies, in the tradition of sex, lies, and videotape; Before Sunrise; and Walking and Talking. Even among this cadre, however, the film was something of a shoestring miracle: Mottola, a graduate of the Columbia University film program in his early thirties, had filmed it in just seventeen days, using an initial investment of sixty thousand dollars, mostly provided by Steven Soderbergh and sex, lies executive producer Nancy Tenenbaum. It was the director’s second try, after a failed development process for another screenplay, Lush Life—and in contrast to that one, The Daytrippers was explicitly designed to be pragmatic to film. Half the dialogue takes place in a station wagon, while other scenes were filmed at Mottola’s family’s house on Long Island or at his SoHo apartment. The actors got a hundred dollars a day. It didn’t all go smoothly: on the first day of shooting, someone stole the production’s thirty-five-thousand-dollar Super 16 mm camera. Then the film had a rocky time getting distribution: it was rejected by Sundance, then premiered at Slamdance in January 1996, a screening that was plagued by technical difficulties. Still, The Daytrippers did end up winning that festival’s grand jury prize and got picked up at Cannes a few months later. It made $2,099,677 domestically—not bad, given its low budget, but not exactly a blockbuster.

“The film dawdles and delays, tugging viewers into side stories, slowly building a shrewd, compassionate portrait of both a family and an era.”

Watching the film at the Angelika, I knew none of that. (I also wasn’t much of a film buff, so I didn’t care.) To me, The Daytrippers seemed like a very major deal, at once funny and heartbreaking, with a stupendous five-part acting ensemble—Schreiber, Posey, Anne Meara, Hope Davis, and Pat McNamara—plus Stanley Tucci, whose crucial appearances bookend the movie. On one level, the plot is simple, about two sisters who, over twenty-four hours, reach painful realizations about their romantic relationships. But along the way, The Daytrippers dawdles and delays, tugging viewers into side stories, slowly building a shrewd, compassionate portrait of both a family and an era. The Manhattan that the film explores was unsettlingly familiar to me, an anxious place full of show-offs and sad sacks, book-industry gossip, rooftop parties, nosy neighbors, men spouting grand intellectual theories and the women in their orbit. It pokes fun at blowhards and cads, bullies and phonies. And yet the movie’s central mode is empathy: when Posey’s character flirts with a successful novelist and humiliates her boyfriend (Schreiber), you end up rooting for all three characters at once. It was my favorite type of art: humble on the outside, epic inside.

The Daytrippers begins simply, as a story about infidelity. A Long Island married couple, Eliza and Louis D’Amico, drive back from her family’s Thanksgiving. Eliza (Davis) is soft-spoken, Louis (Tucci) smooth, but their marriage seems okay—and when they get home, they have swooningly intimate sex (Tucci memorably lifts Davis up against the wall, her legs floating up to embrace him). The next day, Eliza finds a love letter that quotes Andrew Marvell’s “The Definition of Love.” It’s signed “With love, Sandy.” She rushes to her parents’ house, and soon her whole family—her abrasive mom, Rita (a wonderful, frightening Meara); her silent dad, Jim (McNamara); and her sardonic sister, Jo (Posey), visiting from college with her wannabe-novelist boyfriend, Carl—crowds into the car to head off to Manhattan. Their plan is to confront Louis at the publishing company where he’s an editor. “It’s very easy to lie on the phone,” Rita warns her daughter.

The rest of the movie consists of an elaborate series of wrong turns, which are woven into a claustrophobic, intimate family debate, which is itself broken up by Carl’s attempt to deliver the plot of his ridiculous unpublished novel—an allegory about a prophet with a dog’s head. “You see, it’s actually especially important that he’s a pointer, because in the book, he’s sort of a visionary, you know—pointing? The way to salvation?” Carl explains, as Rita beams worshipfully from the front seat. (Weirdly enough, shortly after the movie’s debut, a novel like this did come out: Lives of the Monster Dogs, by Kirsten Bakis. It’s a good book!)

The Malones bicker, but they also bond as they chase new clues, becoming amateur detectives. First, the family stops by Louis’s office, only to find that he has left for the day; then they head toward an apartment that might be Sandy’s, where they spot Louis getting into a cab and conduct what Jo dryly describes as “the world’s shortest car chase.” They go to a stuffy book party that Louis is supposed to be attending, but he is a no-show. Eventually, they trace him to a different, wilder (and artsier and more diverse) party, and onto a rooftop, where Eliza finally spots her husband—a lovely, joyful, loose moment that seems at first like a huge relief, as Davis’s radiant smile fills the screen, only to dissolve when she realizes what’s happening. 

At every detour, New Yorkers’ stories intersect with the Malones’, the strangers’ emotions mirroring their own—in small lies, jolts of contempt, waves of insecurity. A publishing nebbish, Aaron, keeps trying to tell the same raunchy story about a “Rubenesque punk chick,” with diminishing effects. A young man named Ronnie and his father rescue Rita when she faints, but the dad turns out to be a deadbeat. Eliza and her father help two miserable sisters who are dividing their dead mother’s pills. At that final party, a drunk publicist played by Marcia Gay Harden—in a spectacular cameo—delivers a bubbly, wistful speech about a man across the room, whom she recommends to Eliza as “awfully good in the sack” and “a real stand-up gent,” but who also, she adds sadly, as if acknowledging the bad paint job on a good property, suffers from “a slight . . . falling-out-of-love problem.” That “falling-out-of-love problem” haunts the whole movie. There’s a streak of desperation, a fear of mediocrity, of being left out or deceived, that buzzes through each interaction. It infects not just the Malones but all of Manhattan, lending the city a perverse companionability. Reading Mottola’s interviews from the period, I learned that the main note he had gotten from Sundance was that he should cut these tangents, narrow his focus to the family, the cheating plot. Good thing he didn’t listen.

Mottola would take a ten-year break from filmmaking after The Daytrippers. During that time, he directed several excellent television comedies, just as television was becoming more visually ambitious. He filmed episodes of Judd Apatow’s college series, Undeclared; he worked on the caustic family sitcom Arrested Development and on HBO’s The Comeback, a sharp interrogation of reality-TV fame. Then Mottola went back to movies, directing two coming-of-age stories, Superbad (2007) and Adventureland (2009)—popular films that alternate cruel satire with warmth, the proprietary blend that he’d developed in The Daytrippers. Adventureland, in particular, shares with The Daytrippers a sympathetic fascination with a certain breed of young male intellectual, whose pretentiousness can sting but is also another kind of innocence. 

In The Daytrippers, that person is Carl, the character played by Schreiber, whose specialty, back in the nineties, was just this kind of humane fuckup. Carl begins the movie as a minor character, the comic relief on the road trip, Jo’s grandiose, insecure boyfriend who keeps needing to stop to pee. Her mother is hung up on him, in a needy mutual flirtation that drives everyone else crazy. Yet somehow, by the time Carl gets his comeuppance around the film’s halfway point, at that fancy book party, we feel for him, entirely. In a perfectly constructed sequence, Carl loses, in minutes, a political debate, his girlfriend, and the illusion that he is a literary genius, when the man he insists is his mentor—a writing instructor from a semester he spent at Cambridge—slams a cab door in his face, a mortification seen by no one but us. “I don’t think he really needs your help arguing his side,” he tells Jo bleakly, as his girlfriend starts to push back at his ideas, falling, right in front of him, for Eddie (Campbell Scott), an author published by Louis’s employer, and a meaner, sleeker, more talented (and also, let’s face it: sexier) version of himself. 

“Each actor gets multiple moments in which goofy slapstick and emotional pain overlap, each intensifying the other.”

But it is Mottola’s brilliance that Carl’s emotional rock bottom is quickly followed by a great visual joke: humiliated, Carl retreats to the buffet, only to find himself unexpectedly onstage. Glasses clink; toasts begin. Panicking, Schreiber performs an awkward, smiling shuffle, trying to exit, only to be blocked in as the author begins to speak, cheerily describing her book as an “account of devastating spiritual asphyxiation,” then announcing that she is about to read a “selection of journal entries from the year 1976.” Polite to the end, Carl can only cross his arms, sweat it out, and endure.

Each actor gets multiple moments like this, in which goofy slapstick and emotional pain overlap, each intensifying the other. In a witty visual bank shot, Eddie makes eye contact with Eliza, waiting for Louis at his office, as he lobs put-downs at the pathetic Aaron. Rita chases Louis down the street, then shrieks insults at her husband, a wrenching moment that pivots, a second later, into something darkly hilarious as she topples over like a felled tree, causing Jo to mutter, “Don’t go into the light, Mom.”

Throughout, Mottola turns the constraints of low-budget filmmaking into benefits. That station wagon, for instance: Mottola didn’t have the equipment to film the whole ensemble together, so he did it in sections, the actors and cameramen hopping in and out while the director himself huddled under a blanket with the soundman, delivering lines for the offscreen actors who had had to give up their seats. Yet these scenes never feel choppy or artificial; they flow organically, moving from chatter to glances out the window, broken by shots of Jim’s disgusted face, filmed from Eliza’s back-seat view. In between, there’s silence, scored with soaring voices and gentle percussion, as we cut to shots of highway signs, helping to situate the viewer while also capturing the meditative, numbed-out mind-set of a long drive.

Often enough, the acting is the action. Posey’s expressions alone tell an entire substory about her changing relationship to Carl’s novel: At first, she’s his hype man (“Carl wrote a novel, everyone! It’s great, it’s just far-out”), stroking his arm, playing defense with her parents (“It’s Dr. Seuss for adults, Mom”). But gradually microexpressions of contempt begin to flicker in her eyes. Midway through, Jo starts scribbling on red lipstick as Carl narrates, until he crosses a line of inanity—“Exactly! He’s a pointer who can’t point”—and suddenly those bright-red lips curl, behind his back, where no one can see. The costumes are just as perfectly chosen, suggesting character alliances as they shift. At first, Jo and Carl are childlike twins, in long red and green scarves, until she frantically strips off layers, determined to enter that book party hot and single (Posey’s rebel turquoise-and-yellow eye makeup deserves its own essay). In Ronnie’s living room, Ronnie and Jim wear comically identical puffy jackets, baseball hats, and frowns, sitting together with crossed arms, each a conscientious objector to his own family drama.  

The dialogue-free sequence in which Eliza finally finds Louis on the roof is among the movie’s most beautifully constructed: As she walks through the roof door, the crowd is out of focus, a blur, as are the strung lights, reflecting Eliza’s disorientation. Then she spots Louis’s smiling jaw, his shining eyes. The camera frames her face for a long moment as we watch her watching him, in relief—not a stranger, just her husband. She beams, seeing his Groucho Marx grin, as he blows smoke and drops his head, bends his knees, and dances lower, creating the illusion that he’s disappearing into the floor. For an instant, Louis is obscured by strangers, half of them smoking. Then he rises up from the crowd and walks over and kisses Sandy, who turns out to be not a woman but a man, as elegantly dressed and handsome as Louis is. It’s a romantic moment for him that is a devastation for her.

Although I hadn’t seen the movie in years before I rewatched it for this essay, I still remembered that liquid, erotic sequence vividly—one of many in this film in which one person’s liberation doubles as another person’s destruction. The sexual politics may read differently now, for younger audiences, reflecting as they do a transitional moment in the late nineties, an anxious, claustrophobic, half-in/half-out period for gay men. But Davis’s look of shock, the specificity of the couple’s marriage, Louis’s seductive cockiness, Eliza’s warmth and her reflexive self-doubt lend the moment enormous weight, chemistry created by Davis and Tucci in just a few short scenes. 

Their final confrontation is a doozy. As Eliza peppers him with questions, Louis tries to smile and evade, glancing down, a caught dog. Frustrated, Eliza keeps asking—Is it serious? Is he in love? “I don’t know what it is,” Louis says, and he begins to stutter, to repeat himself, his charm breaking down. Instead of playing the scene purely as vulnerability, Tucci infuses it with fear and anger, his voice rising until he glares at Davis, radiating his words as a threat: “I’m confused, and you have to help me. Okay?” It’s the moment that Eliza knows that she can walk away—that it’s not her role to be his cheerleader, his support system. She has her family to take care of her, after all.

The Daytrippers ends with the two sisters walking together down a Manhattan street, their arms wrapped around each other. Nothing is resolved, but something cataclysmic has happened. The mystery the family has been struggling to solve isn’t really about Louis, in the end—it’s about Rita, the mother, who in any other movie might be a monster. Meara’s unvarnished performance makes her something deeper: a figure of pathos whose idea of love is blaring the message that her daughters are nothing without a smart man, as if she were a broken foghorn steering them into the rocks. It’s Carl who breaks that spell, with a small but crucial act: after Rita calls Jo a “foolish girl” for breaking up with him, he responds, “No, actually, she’s not.” It’s a throwaway remark, underplayed, on a public street, where anyone could hear. It makes me cry, every time.

Mottola still lands a joke, in the end. Before Jo walks off to comfort her sister, Carl assures her that he’ll stay, to keep her mother and father from killing each other. “How do you plan to do that?” she asks. Carl smiles at her, finally able to take himself less seriously, a different kind of happy ending:  “Soothe them to sleep with the last chapter of my novel?”