Neal Oliver (James Marsden) is an aspiring artist, though he hasn’t sold any paintings. Neal’s parents are dead set on him going to law school, as is his controlling girlfriend whom he is not even sure he loves. He desperately needs answers about what to do with his life. An answer arrives in the form of a chance encounter with O.W. Grant (Gary Oldman), a red-haired, monkey pipe-smoking magical being who claims to be able to grant wishes. After a freak accident lands Neal in hospital, he discovers a string of billboards featuring the same beautiful girl (Amy Smart) who is haunting his dreams. The trail leads to a warehouse where the enigmatic Ray (Christopher Lloyd) hires Neal to deliver a mysterious package to a non-existent town, down the non-existent Interstate 60 - which could lead to an encounter with his dream girl. Picking up a passenger in none other than O.W. Grant proves the first in a series of strange encounters along Neal’s surreal, eye-opening odyssey across America.
Interstate 60 was the feature directing debut of Bob Gale, the accomplished screenwriter and producing partner of Robert Zemeckis. His output reflects a vision of America filtered through the prism of its pop culture. Back to the Future (1985) was essentially an updated variation on the kind of folkloric tales that inspired It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), swapping angels for time machines yet deftly dealing with the aspirations and anxieties of two intertwined generations. With the wilfully idiosyncratic yet wholly charming Interstate 60, Gale plays once more with the folk tradition of wish-fulfilment stories, including the important caveat one may not always get what you want, but what you deserve. A warning ably illustrated in the opening cameo from Michael J. Fox who shares an unfortunate encounter with the affable but dangerously capricious O.W. Grant. Winningly embodied by Gary Oldman, O.W. is less the genial genie than the unpredictable embodiment of fate itself. He gives people the opportunity to realize their own choices in life, whether good or bad.
Gale merges the wish-fulfilment story with another genre that is a key part of American culture: the road trip. From the early pioneers to Depression-era drifters, Jack Kerouac to Bob Dylan, The Wizard of Oz (1939) to Easy Rider (1969), generations of American heroes have searched for something better down the open road. So it goes that Neal’s search for meaning and direction in his life leads to confrontations with various alternative lifestyles. These range from humorous encounters with a nymphomaniac (onetime Pink Power Ranger, Amy Jo Smart) in search of the perfect lay, a job assisting the curator (Ann-Margret) of a museum of art fraud and imprisonment in the most litigious town in America, to a genuinely haunting episode where Neal tries to help a concerned mother (Rebecca Jenkins) save her son from a town where drugs have been legalised. As the frighteningly pragmatic sheriff (Kurt Russell) explains, young addicts work as slaves by day so they can party all night.
The film’s socio-political satire and philosophical inclinations are reminiscent of counter-cultural cinema from the late Sixties. While the film’s surrealistic flavour is likely less palatable to mainstream tastes, it displays much of the same warmth, wit, wisdom and ambition that marked Gale’s early work. It is very much a writer’s work, driven foremost by dialogue than visual ingenuity. Yet while Gale lacks directorial panache, he crafts a superb screenplay to which an exceptional cast respond with beguiling, unflagging enthusiasm. James Marsden makes a very personable lead and does not get swamped by the starry supporting cast, including an outstanding Chris Cooper as a philosophically inclined travelling salesman hiding an explosive secret. Similarly, despite limited screen time, Amy Smart proves a winning love interest and makes a memorable entrance that almost derails Neal’s fantasy. Among the film’s most endearing aspects is something that not only reflects the ethos of the road trip genre but also reflects the American pioneer spirit. It is the unflagging belief that there is always another choice in life, an alternative to the cynical conformity of the mainstream, something better over the horizon.