So when someone holds a door open for you they’re treating you like a kid, but when they don’t they’re an asshole? Is that how it works? You claim that you want to be treated like everyone else, but what you fail to realise is that the longer you focus on trying to be normal, the longer it’s going to take for you to realise that no-one’s normal.
You know those trailers where that makes the film look remotely interesting and get you excited, but then turn out to be pure garbage? Well “Who’s Driving Doug” doesn’t reach that level of awfulness, it is certainly not even remotely as entertaining as the trailer makes me briefly look, and infact I would go as far as calling it one of the most pretentious movies that I have ever seen.
Now, you may gather from that that I’ve actually watched the film before writing this bit (something that I don’t normally do for those that haven’t read this site before), and I’ve struggled to motivate myself to write this review due to a combination of things going on in my personal life, and the film just not being that entertaining.
Whilst it’s not an awful film by any stretch, I am genuinely surprised that one reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes gave it a positive review, giving it a score (at the time of writing) or 20%.
Doug (Mitte) is a heavily disabled student at college and he requires a new driver after his current one quits. He posts an advert that is quickly taken down by Scott (Johnson), a slacker who has just been declined a place at the college. Scott soon approaches Doug and is hired.
On their first journey together, Scott reveals that he is from Las Vegas, and Doug takes an immediate interest as his dad wasn’t able to take him before his death. Scott gets a call that requires him to drive home and Doug agrees to go with him in exchange for using his car. They take Doug’s friend Stephanie (Kwiatkowski) along for the ride.
As the journey goes on the trio become good friends and they enjoy a gambling session when they eventually arrive in Vegas, however, things change when Scott hires a prostitute for Doug following an earlier conversation about if he was a virgin. Stephanie believes that Scott isn’t the best person for Doug before the two end up having sex, which causes a rift between the three and makes the rest of the trip very uncomfortable.
So why is it pretentious?
Let’s start with the positives and there was a moment that made me audibly laugh. I don’t laugh out loud that often but this particular mini-scene was a gem. It comes as Scott and Doug are approached in the casino because the owners don’t believe the latter is over 21. Scott tricks the security guard into thinking that Doug’s ID is in his back pocket, but to get it out it would require picking him up and flipping him over. The security guard realises it isn’t worth the hassle and walks off.
There are moments of heartfelt honesty in the 95 minute run time, and they do capture how Doug reacts to being in Vegas very realistically. I’ve done that face many times before myself when going to places where I have waited to go for a long time, so I liked that.
And the final part of the film that I actually liked (yeah, there wasn’t a lot) is the scene in which Doug and Scott have their final fight. Doug is trying to apologise to Scott, but he wants no part of it, and the way the scene ends is so well acted by all concerned that it was hard not to get drawn in, even if everything beforehand made me feel very disconnected….which leads me neatly onto the negatives from the film.
As I’ve mentioned a few times already, this film feels exceptionally pretentious because it seems to think that it can get by by being a movie that’s trying to force you to feel sorry for the characters. However, for that to be the case the characters actually have to be remotely interesting, and because of this the film gives off the impression that it thinks it is far more important and life-affirming than it actually is.
Despite there being genuinely heart-felt moments and other parts that you can genuinely enjoy, the film is otherwise largely dull and lifeless, with even the conflict later on in the film feeling completely forced. There are several reasons for this, including the pacing being off, the story itself just not being that engaging and probably most importantly, none of the characters are particularly likable.
Doug isn’t really a likable character. Whilst there are moments where he does show genuine concern for others, he is largely caught up in his own problems and he defines himself by his disability. He is just so incredibly self-centred that it’s hard to like him, especially when you realise he can’t see that his mother is still struggling following his father’s dead. Even right at the end Doug lambasts his mother for keeping his father’s ashes. He takes no consideration to the fact that maybe she isn’t ready.
Scott clearly points out that he’s a bit of a hypocrite in many ways and this continues to be highlighted long afterwards, especially when Doug turns against Scott because of his relationship with Stephanie. Doug’s seemingly one dimensional and self-centred personality means that when he makes his final speech during the film, about how he doesn’t care what other people think, it has lost a lot of the emotional impact that I feel the filmmakers were going for. The film tries to force down your throat that you should be the best you can be and not let your “weaknesses” stop you, but it’s just not written in a way that actually makes it a journey of self-growth that you’re interested in.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that being disabled is a big part of anyone’s life, and my brother has spent most of the last twenty years in a wheelchair due to a progressive disease so I know first hand what it’s like and how hard it can be for someone to live with a disability, and for those around them to support them, but to present someone as being defined by their disability, rather than it being just a part of a larger whole, took me completely out of the film. There aren’t really any secondary characteristics to Doug and he’s not a good protagonist.
There is also the issue of the slurry nature of Doug’s voice in the film. RJ Mitte is a fantastic actor and to be fair to him, he doesn’t do anything wrong in this role, but in this film his cerebral palsy is just played up so much that, in the nicest possible way, it’s hard to understand some of the lines of dialogue. Now don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that with the character it is going to be the case where the voice is going to be slurry, but it sometimes means you’re concentrating so hard to understand what he’s saying that it’s hard to notice other things going on.
It’s just one of several needless problems with the film, and it’s almost done as if no-one actually went through and checked it afterwards. For example, about ten minutes after a scene in which Doug says that it’s not possible for him to smile due to the muscles in his face, it shows a flashback to when he is rolling downhill on his wheelchair and the character (played by a child actor in the scene) is quite clearly smiling. There are quite a fair few scenes in which whilst it isn’t to the extent that most people would call a smile, it’s obvious that the character is happy based on the expression of the mouth alone.
And finally, the biggest problem for me is something that I rarely comment on in a negative sense and that is that the soundtrack doesn’t really seem appropriate to the film. All songs are by “Death Cab for Cutie”, but there are times when a song is playing in the background that neither fits what is going on, or indeed the pacing. As they ever Las Vegas there is an instrumental piece of music that just doesn’t fit in, and it’s the same when they’re gambling. It just doesn’t word, but it’s hard to put into words why it doesn’t work.
A film that could have been better so easily, but it gets lost in its own self importance that it’s hard to really appreciate it on any level, and this isn’t helped by having no likable characters in the film.
Doug is one of the most one-dimensional disabled characters that I’ve ever seen in cinema and it is such a shame because RJ Mitte is just wasted in this completely lackluster film. He is joined by a cast of characters that just don’t really hit any emotions whatsoever other than boredom.
Don’t bother, there are far better “road trip” films out there.