Short on irony, long on wit, writer/director Greg Mottola's The Daytrippers breaks with the pack of recent thumbsucking U.S. indie productions to fashion a funny and frolicsome feature that scrutinizes the much poked and prodded American family. Working from what seems a slight premise, The Daytrippers, through economic storytelling and sharply drawn characters, slowly snowballs, picking up speed as it adroitly sucks you in to gladly accompany its amateur sleuths as they attempt to solve a marital "mystery."
Mottola's directorial debut wastes no time in, as it were, cutting to the chase. Judging from the film's opening scene on Thanksgiving night, Eliza (Hope Davis) and Louis D'Amico (Stanley Tucci) seem to have a loving marriage. He works in the publicity department of a Manhattan publishing house; she teaches elementary schoolkids on Long Island, where the couple lives, not far from Eliza's parents Jim and Rita Malone (Pat McNamara and Anne Meara). The morning after that opening scene, with Louis already off to work, Eliza finds a note that appears to have slipped from his clothes -- a beautiful note written by someone named Sandy, who quotes seventeenth-century English poet Andrew Marvell about impossible love, love that can never be.
Eliza, understandably troubled, drives to her parents' house, where she consults meddling Mom and put-upon Dad, plus her street-smart mall-chick younger sister Jo (Parker Posey) and Carl (Liev Schreiber), Jo's likably nerdy wannabe novelist boyfriend. Convinced that direct confrontation is the best approach, Rita takes command of the situation, and the five of them pile into the Malones' engine-knocking Buick station wagon and head toward New York City, whizzing past Long Island's endless sea of strip malls en route to Louis's office.
Once there, however, they learn that Louis has been given the day off -- news to Eliza. Incriminating evidence mounts. Rummaging through her son-in-law's desk, Rita finds snapshots of Louis with an attractive brunette: One photo shows the pair holding a cake that reads "Happy Birthday, Sandy." Then when Eliza punches in the speed-dial numbers on her husband's desk phone, one of them yields the answering machine for "Monica and Sandy." Using the photos as a guide, the quintet locates Monica and Sandy's apartment building, from which Louis and the brunette emerge and hop into a taxi. Jim, Rita, Eliza, Jo, and Carl follow in pursuit (Jim's inept driving precludes hot pursuit).
Never subjected to the intervention of gratuitous plot contrivances, The Daytrippers itself hurtles along without exceeding the speed limit, propelled by its own genuine forward momentum. While Mottola's film may remind some viewers of Martin Scorsese's 1985 After Hours at times, it lacks the latter's episodic nature. And when Mottola skids into Quentin Tarantino territory as he has Carl periodically recount the plot of his novel -- a "spiritual allegory" about a man with a dog's head -- he provides insight into Carl and the others. (Ditto Carl's overt philosophizing about the advantages of an aristocracy over a democracy: "At least the aristocrats had taste. They did things with class," he informs Jo as he noisily slurps his coffee.)
Ultimately, Mottola has created much more than an entertaining road-movie-cum-mystery (or mystery-cum-road movie), because he uses Louis's apparent infidelity as a catalyst to test the strength of the relationships of all of his characters. And to his credit, unlike most filmmakers, Mottola never tries to resolve these relationships, even at the end of his movie. Instead, he wisely allows them to dangle. Just like real life.