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Absolute Beginners

Absolute Beginners: James Marsden Is A Big Ole Hunk Of Whitebread In ‘Interstate 60’

Where to Stream

Interstate 60

The ubiquity of online streaming makes it harder than ever before for movie stars and established filmmakers to hide their early mistakes. With that in mind, we bring you Absolute Beginners, an ongoing column devoted to movies streaming online that movie stars and top directors made before becoming household names. The idea is to ascertain whether these obscure early efforts are overlooked gems or enduring sources of shame.

The Film: Interstate 60
Year: 2002
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Absolute Beginner: James Marsden

A lot of pretty boy actors initially make a pretty meager impression, when they make an impression at all, because they begin their careers with the kinds of unchallenging, unrewarding hunk roles where they’re not called upon to do anything more than be handsome, square-jawed and cocky, and look good alongside their leading lady.

Ryan Reynolds and Ryan Phillippe all fall into this category, as does James Marsden, who initially made very little impact when he broke onto the national consciousness as one of the more tedious mutants in X-Men. The movie was a big old, paradigm-shifting hit, but Marsden did little more than prove he was capable of being a handsome boring dude standing in the background of a superhero team up movie while more charismatic actors held court.

After biding his time on the sidelines in X-Men, Marsden took center stage in Interstate 60, a surprisingly fascinating direct-to-DVD movie notable, among other things, for being the only movie directed by Bob Gale, who with writing and producing partner Robert Zemeckis wrote one of the most perfect screenplays ever with Back To The Future.

Gale attracted a dynamite cast including Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox (although not in the same scene together, alas), Chris Cooper, Gary Oldman and Kurt Russell. He wrote such juicy roles for his overqualified and clearly delighted supporting cast of world-class ringers that it’s a bit of a surprise he didn’t write much of one for his ostensible star.

And Marsden hadn’t yet evolved from a bland hunk to a scene-stealing comedy pro of Hairspray and 30 Rock adept at undercutting his comic-book handsomeness with goofy physical comedy and self-deprecation. Marsden’s Neal Oliver is bland partially by design. He is the film’s Alice, its Dorothy, and he is not supposed to be anywhere near as colorful or compelling as the weirdoes he encounters on his own crazy, surreal metaphysical journey.

Marsden stars as a 22 year old with vague artistic ambitions to become a painter (at least give the filmmakers credit for not making him a writer or aspiring filmmaker) that clash with his dad’s tedious desire for him to go to law school so he can become a wealthy, dreary conformist glumly going through the motions.

Neal wants more out of life. An apparent acolyte of the teachings of Tom Cochrane, Neal truly believes that life is a highway, and one that he wants to ride all night long. Neil dreads what he sees as his grim fate until the universe throws him a curveball when he meets a red bow-tie-wearing, wish-giving Trickster/Sprite/Leprechaun figure named O.W Grant played with twinkly relish by Gary Oldman.

Grant would cut a perversely Pee-Wee Herman-like figure even if he was not introduced riding a bicycle, wearing a suit and rocking a red bow-tie, something traditionally only P.W. has ever been able to pull off. Like the rest of the ringers Gale has surrounded his star with, he’s clearly having a ball playing an outsized character of fantasy and fun. When you’re rocking a bow-tie, playing a character whose initials stand for “One Wish” and smoking a monkey pipe that stands as a none-too-subtle homage to O. Henry’s classic short story of twisted fate The Monkey’s Paw, there’s no use reining it in.

O.W Grant sees Neal asking for an answer for life at his birthday celebration, and gives him a Magic 8-Ball that is actually magic, and does exactly what it is supposed to do. But O.W Grant is not the only twinkly-eyed figure of magic and wonder Neal encounters. Actually, motherfucker never stops running into twinkly-eyed figures of magic and wonder. It gets annoying after a while.

Neal is asked by Ray (Christopher Lloyd), a mysterious man who delivers one of the film’s many philosophical monologues on the nature of fate and belief and destiny, to deliver a mysterious package to a mysterious locale. Neil picks up O.W as a hitchhiker and they soon find themselves on Interstate 60, which is not listed on any map.

That is because Interstate 60 is no ordinary highway. To borrow a phrase I vaguely recall from somewhere, it is a dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. Let’s just call this dimension “The Twilight Zone.”

Sure enough, Interstate 60 feels unmistakably like one of the “funny” episodes of The Twilight Zone, which aren’t “funny” at all but are moderately quirky and philosophical in a back-handed kind of way. The same is true of Interstate 60, which sends its whitebread hero on a journey of spiritual growth and self-exploration that winds through a series of surreal towns and encounters, many of which would not feel out of place being excerpted into individual episodes of a Twilight Zone or Amazing Stories-like supernatural anthology series.

Neal encounters a town where everybody, but everybody, is either a lawyer or someone being represented by a lawyer that asks the question, could a society of nothing but lawyers survive (short answer: no)? He encounters an eccentric, dying ad wiz played by Chris Cooper who has transformed what is left of his life into a brutal, Objectivist-leaning pursuit of truth and justice, no matter the odds. In his fantastical journeys, Neil contemplates a surreal burgh where the entire populace is addicted to the same club drug, as a sheriff played by Kurt Russell helpfully and considerately explains.

Interstate 60 twinkles with delight at its own comic inventions. It’s a comedy of ideas where the ideas come across much more strongly and compellingly than the actual comedy, and some of its ideas are non-starters, like Neil being in love with a mystery girl he sees on various billboards who is played by Amy Smart, of the Crank motion pictures.

Smart would have made for a more appealing fantasy girl if there was anything about her that wasn’t bland and forgettable, if her vibe wasn’t just “thin, attractive white girl.” Marlene Deitrich she is not, but for the purposes of Interstate 60, she is at least supposed to be an ineffable figure of mystery and danger, instead of a basic pretty girl who’s basically basic.

Interstate 60 isn’t much of a vehicle for Marsden, who reacts more than he acts, and is cursed to forever be the straight man with the blinding white smile and gorgeous cheekbones. Interstate 60 suggests a fantastical world beyond our dreary, humdrum reality, a world full of signs and omens and tricksters and guides shepherding clueless innocents to their pre-ordained fate. It’s an interesting if deeply flawed metaphysical road comedy in which Marsden is almost invariably the least interesting actor onscreen.

The road ahead for Marsden post-Interstate 60 was bright because he was able to make the big, career-making jump from bland pretty boy overmatched by interesting character actors to being the interesting, colorful character actor himself. His career, and the films that lie ahead, were much better for it.

Nathan Rabin (@Nathanrabin) is a freelance writer, the original head writer of The A.V Club, and the author of four books, most recently You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me as well a panelist on Movie Club With John Ridley, a basic cable movie review show hosted by the Academy-Award winning screenwriter of 12 Years A Slave. He lives in Marietta, Georgia with his wife, son and dog.

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