EuroTrip, a somewhat definitive review

Thursday July 14th 2011

Before we start, let’s make entirely clear what this is not. This is not an ironic aggrandisation of a trivial film, nor a satirical application of film academia to an unworthy subject. It is not a celebration of a ‘guilty pleasure’, and it is definitely not an example of the spurious but inescapably pervasive ‘so bad it’s good’ genre. Instead, this is a study of what I believe to be one of the greatest comedy movies ever made: the 2004 box-office flop EuroTrip. It’s a widely underrated film, but that’s not to say that its appeal is in any way niche. Rather, it’s a massively accessible laugh-out-loud comedy that for various reasons — a cast list lacking any real star power; promotional material that portrayed it as a kind of low-rent Boat Trip (if such a thing is even possible) — never really connected with an audience. It’s a mess for sure, but a glorious one, and one whose many misconceived elements serve only to heighten the brilliance of its successes.

It’s this dichotomy that makes EuroTrip such a fascinating film — a film in which razor-sharp dialogue and pitch-perfect visual comedy sit uncomfortably alongside an array of painfully tired (and in many cases, homophobic, misogynistic and xenophobic) stereotypes, all cloaked in varying degrees of irony. Even the film’s most devout supporters would have trouble justifying Fred Armisen’s predatory gay Italian, or the entirely satire-free Berlin scenes, in which a small boy goose-steps around a room wearing a Hitler moustache for reasons imperceptible to the human brain.

But when the film works, it really works. At its best, EuroTrip is a remarkably good-natured satire about American complacency. Those who find themselves laughing at the film’s London-set scenes, with their improbably placed tube stations (Thamesbridge, anyone?) and gangs of meticulously uniformed hooligans, should be under no doubt that they’re laughing with the film, not at it. There’s an all-too-patronising assumption that such silliness must be unintentional—that EuroTrip’s makers might, at best, have made something of an accidental triumph, but can’t possibly be in on the joke themselves. Such a response requires an almost wilful misreading of the film.

And yet, sadly, it would be equally untrue to claim that the filmmakers are entirely aware of their genius. For each of EuroTrip’s intended punch lines (“Paris is practically a suburb of Berlin”), there’s an unintentional slip-up that puts into question just how sharp the film really is (“Cooper, England’s an island”).

After collaborating on fourteen episodes of Seinfeld and the screenplay for 2003’s childhood-pillaging adaptation of The Cat in the Hat, comedy trio Jeff Schaffer, Alec Berg and David Mandel made their directorial debut on EuroTrip, though in the end only Schaffer was credited after the Director’s Guild of America failed to recognise them as a legitimate creative team. (Endearingly, he was selected to take the credit after his name was picked first out of a hat.) Since then, all three have written, directed and produced several episodes of hit HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm and are set to return to the big screen next year as co-writers with Sacha Baron Cohen on his political satire The Dictator. As a partnership twenty years in the making, Berg, Mandel and Schaffer undoubtedly have compatible writing styles. And yet the received wisdom about films written by large numbers of writers does ring at least partially true in EuroTrip, a film that for all its virtues has undeniable structural and tonal problems. Whether this was a direct result of schisms within the threesome or was brought on by studio intervention, however, is harder to ascertain.

In 2004, DreamWorks were keen to suck the final dregs from the teen comedy resurgence, which had begun a decade earlier with the box office success of Clueless. They scrapped EuroTrip’s original title Ugly Americans (which, though blunt, at least hints at satirical ambition) and instead came up with a list of alternatives to be reviewed by focus groups. Most of the rejected names were lazy riffs on recent teen hits (40 Days Abroad, What a Frau Wants) as was the title they eventually plumped for, a simple play on 2000’s Road Trip that might imply a connection without explicitly stating it, just as Boat Trip had done two years earlier. The film’s content was also subject to intense scrutiny during these sessions, which—while inevitably tightening the finished product — may have also weeded out some of the more subtle material. Nonetheless, it’s impressive that so much did make it through to the final cut: ninety minute teen comedies aren’t often known for their mix of biting satire and extreme gross-out humour. Full-frontal male and female nudity are both granted ample screen time (as is an extended sadomasochistic sequence) though ironically the word ‘cunt’ had to be excised from a scene in which one male character warns another that girls don’t like the word, as studio heads were concerned that the character was correct.

After a world premiere at Los Angeles’ iconic Mann’s Chinese Theatre, EuroTrip was released across the United States on February 20th 2004. It opened at number five at the box office, behind mainstream fare like 50 First Dates and Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, as well as Hockey drama Miracle and Ray Romano vehicle Welcome to Mooseport. It was a similar story in the UK, where it opened in less than 100 screens and quickly dropped out of the top ten thanks to a June release date that put it in the vicinity of Mean Girls, Troy and the third Harry Potter movie. Critics weren’t much more favourable, writing it off as a formulaic, if occasionally successful, comedy in the red-text-on-a-white-background vein. Paramount’s marketing department were all too happy to concur, and later that year issued a DVD release that looked about as credible as one of those American Pie spin-offs that Eugene Levy keeps putting his name to.

Nonetheless, EuroTrip has proved a surprisingly enduring piece of pop cultural currency, and not only in the £3 bins of most surburban HMVs (though it inevitably does well there too). Sequences like the Parisian robot fight and Cooper’s hot tub subterfuge seem to be perennially familiar to anyone under the age of thirty, even if they don’t necessarily represent the film’s finest moments. The latter scene was originally conceived while Berg, Mandel and Schaffer were doing rewrites on snowboarding comedy Out Cold, but they liked it so much that they decided to save it for their own movie. That three professional screenwriters should be so precious about a sequence that’s essentially just an excuse to see an 18-year-old first-time actress from Ohio rubbing her tits for a bit, suggests they might not entirely be the modern-day Swifts I’m so eager to paint them as.

Also well known are the film’s many impressive cameos, from Lucy Lawless, Joanna Lumley and (most remarkably) a post-Bourne Matt Damon. All were friends of the filmmakers who agreed to lend themselves to the production for a day or two. Kevin Smith was also set to appear, but dropped out after it became apparent that filming a simple Ohio-set scene would require him to travel to Prague.

With the exception of a few brief insert shots, the entirety of the film was shot in the Czech capital. Locations around the city doubled for London, Berlin, Paris and the rest of the gang’s European tour, as well as the United States, and tax incentives helped to keep production costs down. The blatant inauthenticity of these stand-in streets and composited skylines (almost certainly not intentionally bad — Mandel & co. are quick to praise the VFX team at any opportunity) may require some suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, but they also bring into sharp focus the entire point of the movie: this is not Europe, this is what four naïve American teenagers imagine Europe to be. And even when the goofs are entirely accidental, there’s an ironic brilliance to them that only adds to the overall effect. Upon arriving in London, the teens visit a pub called the ‘Fiesty Goat’ — a misspelling that was mindlessly carried across from script to set design, and shot for two days before anyone noticed the mistake.

As casting purely in the States was considered prohibitively expensive, a large number of actors were brought on board in the Czech Republic, with less-than-convincing results. Scott’s younger brother Bert is portrayed by Czech teen Nial Iskhakov, who’s perfectly funny in the role but couldn’t look much less Ohioan if he had three arms and a detachable head. Add to that the large number of Americans playing Europeans characters (Fred Armisen, J.P. Manoux, Diedrich Bader) and you’re left with the impression that the filmmakers were actively trying to cast against logic. Such choices further illustrate the insanity of taking any of the film’s apparently xenophobic attitudes at face value: this is a film in which the vast majority of American characters are portrayed by the very Europeans they’re so quick to deride.

The film’s lead quartet of Scott Mechlowicz, Jacob Pitts, Michelle Trachtenberg and Travis Wester, on the other hand, are the all-American real deal. With the exception of Trachtenberg, who became a child star with the 1996 Nickelodeon comedy Harriet the Spy and was later a recurring character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they were all picked from relative obscurity to appear in the film. Only Trachtenberg was still a teenager at the time of production, shooting most of the film aged 17. Her male co-stars ranged between 24 and 26. Sadly, all four have since slipped out of the spotlight, moving onto independent films (Mechlowicz), appearing on cable TV (Wester) or in the case of Pitts and Trachtenberg, continuing to accept minor teen roles into their late-twenties (in heist drama 21 and body-swap comedy 17 Again respectively).

Nonetheless, their performances in EuroTrip are remarkably assured, in particular that of Jacob Pitts as the remarkably endearing oversexed bastard Cooper. His delivery of the line “Dude, Mieke’s hideous, run!” is without a doubt one of the great comedy readings of all time. Mechlowicz too seemed destined for success after the impressive one-two punch of this film and indie drama Mean Creek, both released in 2004 but offering wildly different performances from a young actor whose only prior role was playing Smee in an obscure Wil Wheaton-starring take on Peter Pan (try eBay). His easily overlooked performance here is actually deceptively complex, and (ironically) his straight-man routine gives rise to one of the film’s most distinctive attributes: its all-encompassing obsession with homosexuality.

Homophobia is shifting in the contemporary comedy landscape. Today’s mainstream comedies are falling over themselves to have their cake and eat it where gay issues are concerned. Obviously, the joke is no longer explicitly at the expense of the flamboyant queen or the rugged bear; now the attention has shifted to the straight protagonist(s) and the possibility that they might be thought of as gay. There’s a spurious notion that this shift allows us to laugh at homophobia rather than with it, on the basis that it’s the dumb redneck stereotype saying ‘faggot’ instead of the action hero. But essentially, we’re still being presented with heterosexual characters who are amused and/or horrified by the innately ‘icky’ idea of homosexuality, and all the token quirky gay roommates in the world can’t change that.

While it might not be immediately apparent, EuroTrip takes a considerably more thoughtful look at homophobia, and specifically gay anxiety. As Maryann Johanson pointed out in her criticism of the film (see ‘Critical Reaction’), Scott’s entire character arc, and therefore the eponymous trip itself, is motivated by a desire to prove his heterosexuality, firstly by dedicating himself solely to the pursuit of German pen pal Mieke (the fact that he fell in love with her while under the impression that she was a man isn’t given much consideration) and finally by fucking her silly. Brilliantly, he screams ‘Mike!’ mid-coitus, a read-into-it-if-you-like joke that’s precisely indicative of the film’s treatment of this issue: it’s prepared to be complex, but only if the jokes work on a more basic level as well. The scene in which Scott has a sexual fantasy about Mieke only to find himself being licked by a male train passenger in his sleep works perfectly well as a simple bit of gross-out humour, but on another level (and this really isn’t much of a stretch) we’re also witnessing a confused teenage male convincing himself that a homosexual activity is in fact heterosexual, before screaming in horror when the illusion shatters before him. Elsewhere, Scott runs in terror from a hoard of naked men on a nude beach and has ’Nam-style flashbacks to the time he ‘saw a gay porno once’. It’s not hard to read between such wide lines.

Of course, like the rest of the film, any intellectualising is slightly at odds with the movie’s pervasively juvenile tone. On paper it’s very easy to attribute intelligence and nuance to the film’s writers, but when a Behind the Scenes featurette clearly shows one of them warning an actor not to ‘drop the soap’ during the filming of the nude beach scene, it gets that little bit harder to champion them as heroes of Queer Cinema.

Perhaps it’s this conflict that makes the film a tough one to truly love. It’s often unfairly presented as a film that audiences might enjoy ‘in spite of themselves’, which massively underestimates a team of filmmakers who are all too capable of moments of satirical clarity. But the adolescent thoughtlessness that penetrates (*snigger*) so much of their work sits ill at ease with such ambitions and leaves a lot of the film feeling misconceived. When, on the film’s commentary track, Schaffer and co. take it upon themselves to cheer every appearance of a black person on screen, it is of course done with a knowing irony, but that doesn’t really make it any less idiotic.

Nowadays you’re probably most likely to hear the film mentioned in relation to Eli Roth’s Hostel, to which it is often compared. In his 2006 review of Roth’s film, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it a ‘humourless, soft-porn’ remake of EuroTrip, which he in turn dismissed as a ‘moderate frat-boy comedy’. The comparison is understandable: both films feature highly-stereotyped versions of Europe designed to satirise American ignorance. But where Roth wore his intentions on his sleeve, desperately shouting ‘SATIRE!’ at you every five minutes just in case you suspected that Hostel was nothing more than exploitation, EuroTrip seems positively allergic to the word. Its directors make no mention whatsoever of ‘satire’ or ‘irony’ on the film’s 90-minute commentary track, instead describing it as a movie ‘made for fraternities’.

From this you could choose to conclude that any satirical achievement is accidental – that an infinite number of monkeys writing an infinite number of teen films will eventually add a self-aware edge to the proceedings – but instead I put forward the hypothesis that EuroTrip is entirely more conscious than it is often given credit for. Yes, first and foremost it’s an accessible, broad, consistent teen comedy. But it also tackles ideas way beyond its remit as a piece of frothy adolescent titillation. Mocking frat boy ignorance with one hand and applauding it with the other, EuroTrip is satire at its most brazenly self-loathing and audaciously entertaining.