“I want you to listen for a moment. Nobody is ever supposed to win Motorama. Okay? Not really. It’s just something that’s been, well, sort of set up, you know? It’s just something to kinda give people something to do, something to talk about.”
For years, I’ve tried to put my finger on the best way to describe Barry Shil’s 1991 road movie, Motorama.
It’s a road movie where that kid who played Rusty, the bratty practical joker from Full House, curses like a sailor and gets tattooed by Meat Loaf. It’s Lynchian, if David Lynch had a budget of only $1.8 million. It’s Interstate 60, if Interstate 60 was written by the man who wrote Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, and filmed in the style of a Nickelodeon show from the ’90s. It’s Home Alone if Kevin McCallister had decided to use his newfound independence to steal a car and get filthy rich, only to get the shit kicked out of him by the bad guys.
Motorama is all of these things. But the best way I’ve come up with to describe Motorama is that it’s a cult film severely lacking in a cult.
It’s the kind of movie so spectacularly strange and niche that it was almost destined to end up at the bottom of the $5 bin at Blockbuster, and now that Blockbuster has bit the dust, it’s hard to imagine Motorama finding a new home at all, except perhaps in the most obscure corners of the Internet (and maybe not even there: a search for Motorama on tumblr comes up with virtually nothing.)
There are a few reasons this might be, but the most obvious is that it’s simply not the kind of film that was ever preordained for commercial success, and the producers knew it, even during the movie’s initial release. Motorama’s cheesy tagline (“There’s only one way to win the girl of your dreams: floor it!”) is utterly misleading. The film is less about winning the girl of your dreams than the futile pursuit of the American Dream and the perils of materialism (decidedly a harder sell than Drew Barrymore in a bikini, who appears on the film’s posters and DVD covers despite the fact that her cameo lasts a grand total of thirty seconds).
But despite the movie’s deceptive marketing strategy, what Motorama lacks in budget and widespread commercial appeal, it more than makes up for with its ragtag cast (featuring the likes of Eraserhead’s Jack Nance and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and its pure unabashed weirdness. Motorama is quirky and idiosyncratic – but more than that, it’s unflinchingly dark, often bordering on cruel, though the film’s zany humor prevents it from ever quite crossing the line.
From the opening credits, Motorama makes it clear that despite its child protagonist, it’s not to be mistaken for a children’s movie. In fact, Motorama has no qualms about putting ten-year-old Gus through hell: the movie starts with Gus’s parents arguing about how they should have strangled him in his crib, while he fashions a contraption that will allow his feet to reach the pedals of the stolen ’66 Ford Mustang he plans to run away in. Things only get darker from there. Gus’ goal is to win a game called Motorama. The rules of the game are simple: players must collect cards with letters on them from any participating gas stations to spell out the word “M-O-T-O-R-A-M-A.” You get one card with every purchase of at least $5, and most cards have no letters on them at all. The prize is a whopping $500 million dollars. Anyone can play, and the contest never expires.
On paper, it sounds easy enough – but, as nearly everyone Gus runs into on his ill-fated odyssey gleefully reminds him, Motorama may as well be the world’s biggest joke. Nobody plays that game anymore. Anybody who does is just a fool chasing a pipe dream. Oh, and, by the way, good luck trying to track down that damn ‘R.’
What follows is a bildungsroman about the American Dream, though country the film takes place in is never actually revealed. It’s a surreal alternative America, complete with European-looking currency, states with names like Mercer and Essex, and a landscape that is comprised mostly of vast, unoccupied desert. That the country’s terrain looks so much like the American West is no accident; there are few places on earth as synonymous with rugged individualism and opportunity. The West is where you go to get rich – and at its core, the game of Motorama offers the same elusive promise as Manifest Destiny, the California Gold Rush, or even Las Vegas. It’s also worth noting that Gus embarks on his journey in a ‘66 Ford Mustang. The ‘66 Mustang is a relic of the now-declining manufacturing sector. It’s a gas guzzler, dependent, like capitalism, on fossil fuels to run, whose long-standing popularity is thanks to a bout of post-war affluence. But more than that, it’s a car that’s long occupied the American imagination as an emblem of status, wealth, and – in the words of one Ford executive – “the excitement of wide-open spaces.” While it’s fitting that Gus plays Motorama while cruising around in a physical manifestation of American capitalism, it’s even more fitting that his car is constantly breaking down.
But perhaps the most consequential way Motorama holds a mirror to capitalism and the American Dream is by portraying the fundamental deception of it all. The Motorama letters only come with a purchase of at least $5, and so Gus spends much of the film hustling and conning people for cash, only to hand over the fruits of his labor to Chimera, the company that owns all the gas stations. Someone is getting rich off the game of Motorama, but it certainly isn’t Gus, no matter how devoted he is to playing by the rules.
Motorama has a lot to say about the pursuit of extraordinary wealth, but in between all that social commentary, it’s also full of good, old-fashioned surrealism. Case in point: Before Gus officially starts playing Motorama, he stops at a gas station. There, he meets Phil, a gas station attendant who is so deeply obsessed with his own salvation that he ties a photo of himself shaking the sheriff’s hand to a kite. His hope? That the Big Guy Upstairs might see it and judge that he’s a good citizen. Gus, being the ruthless little bastard that he is, “accidentally” unties the kite’s string, which results in Phil chasing after it and getting hit head-on by a truck. (And in case you had any doubts about where Motorama stands on the American Dream, “Highway to Hell” is playing on Gus’ radio as he speeds away from the gas station.) There’s also the eccentric motel owner (Nance) who creepily requests that Gus let him know “if he catches any squirrels.” There’s the scene where a father gambles away his life savings playing horseshoes and proceeds to abandon his children in the woods, Hansel-and-Gretel style. And then there’s the scene where Gus is kidnapped and forced to wear an eyepatch after one of his eyes is brutally bashed in with a ring. If you’d like a mere glimpse into Motorama’s uniquely offbeat breed of humor, what happens next is a perfect example: while Gus is out in public wearing the eyepatch, a mother demands that her child loudly point it out.
“Tommy, what’s so funny about the man?”
“He only has one eye.”
“HE ONLY HAS ONE EYE!”
The eyepatch and tattoos aren’t the only time Motorama toys around with Gus’ appearance. Although we know he’s ten years old, nearly everyone he encounters on the road seems convinced that he’s an adult (albeit a very short one). At one point, while Gus is at a bar, a character inquires where he got the money to afford such a “fancy set of wheels.” When Gus stammers that he sold his stamp collection, the man points out that stamp collections are for little kids. “I’ve had the collection ever since I was a little kid,” Gus replies, as if childhood was a state of being he left behind years ago. When Gus checks into a roadside motel, the motel’s owner clamors to know if he has a girl with him, even though Gus has to stand on his tiptoes to even reach over the desk. Later, Gus manages to trick a restaurant’s staff into thinking he’s a health inspector by putting on a pair of Groucho Marx glasses. But there are also moments when Gus is seen for the child that he is, most notably by the sheriff, which forces him to make up a lie about a fictional father who is (conveniently) always in the bathroom, thanks to his diabetes. When Phil, the pious gas station attendant, demands to know why Gus lied to the police, Gus explodes in frustration: “I’m underage, dammit! I’m ten fucking years old.”
Gus’s coming-of-age is marked not only by the way in which adults view him but in the way in which he begins to view himself. When Gus looks in the mirror at the motel, his reflection is baby-faced, but it’s also corporate and heartless; he wears a suit, his hair is slicked back Gordon Gekko style, and he holds a cigar between his fingers. “What?” his reflection sneers. “You thought this was going to be easy?” Later, Gus’s eyepatch becomes a particularly glaring detail, and not just because the delightfully unorthodox image of a ten-year-old that looks like a grizzled pirate bolsters the film’s audacious weirdness. The eyepatch is about loss of vision in a physical sense, but it’s also about Gus’s growing metaphorical blindness. The closer Gus gets to winning Motorama and to adulthood, the more he loses sight of the truth: Motorama’s $500 million dollar prize, like most prizes, cannot be won without a price, if at all.
And so, by the time Gus reaches the Motorama headquarters with all eight letters he needs to win, he doesn’t just don an eyepatch and a sleeve of tattoos, he also has a head of hair that has inexplicably turned gray. In case you haven’t noticed, the movie seems to be screaming, this kid has officially Seen Some Shit. The visual cues aren’t exactly subtle, but the world that Motorama exists in is so fantastically surreal that they don’t need to be. And to be fair, Gus has Seen Some Shit. During the final leg of his journey, he drives through a nightmarish hellscape (Essex: the Last State) where he witnesses, among other things, a woman being beaten by her husband, a lynching, a man shooting up heroin, and, to top it all off, the Pope being shot. Later, after crashing his car, Gus has a run-in with an elderly man who is wearing the same clothes as him, sitting in a crashed ‘66 Mustang. “All I need is the ‘R’,” the man says, taking his last breaths as blood drips down his face. “If I die, put it on my gravestone that all he needed was the ‘R.’”
And then there’s the ending.
At first, it’s hard not to see it coming from a mile away. I mean, come on. The contest is run by a gas company named Chimera – an impossible creature from Greek mythology. Gus rushes up to the Motorama office, only to be told that due to some inane, idiotic loophole, there is no prize after all. The whole thing was just a big waste of time. Sorry, kid. You got your eye bashed out for nothin’. Life’s a bitch. Better luck next time. The infuriatingly bureaucratic receptionist doesn’t pull a classic Willy Wonka-esque, “You get nothing! You lose! Good day, sir!” but she comes close. And then she does Willy Wonka one better, while simultaneously doing something that nobody could have seen coming: she literally chucks Gus out the window of a skyscraper.
On his way down, Gus undergoes a transformation: his eyepatch flies off, the sleeves of his sweatshirt are restored, and his hair returns to its natural brown. What follows Gus’ sensational freefall is either a cop-out or Gus’ well-deserved chance at redemption. The next time we see Gus, he’s in the middle of the desert where he started. He looks a lot like he did before he started playing Motorama – and if it wasn’t clear enough that there’s some metaphysical forces of salvation at work here, he’s also washing his face in the same river where he drank at the start of the movie. Gus abandons his Mustang, sticks out his thumb, and hitches a ride with a stranger. When the driver asks where he’s going, he says he doesn’t know. And then they stop at a gas station.
There’s Phil, right where we left him– and he’s cheery as ever, even while struggling to pump gas in a full-body cast.
Gus, who once wrote Phil off as a “schmuck” and deliberately sabotaged the guy’s chance at getting into heaven, sees the ‘Help Wanted’ sign. And then he makes a decision: Phil may be dumb, but it’s possible he had the right idea all along. Not with his weird kite thing, obviously. But maybe – just maybe – with his whole “living a humble life and treating people with kindness instead of chasing fame and fortune’ thing. Gus decides to take a job at the gas station. He even gets an adorably oversized uniform, and his very own name tag. His decision is cemented when a gaudy millionaire pulls up to the gas station, bragging about his newfound winnings at a nearby casino. “Wanna touch my money?” he asks, giddy with avarice. Gus refuses. It’s the closest thing we get into a glimpse of Gus’ future had he won Motorama’s prize, and it’s ugly. But worse than that, it’s deadly – the millionaire drives off, only to be hit by the same truck that hit Phil.
In the end, it’s fitting that the motto of the gas station where Gus ends up is “Be Ful-Filled.” The American Dream may not exist, Motorama suggests, but it also doesn’t matter. There are far more important things out there: things that are simpler and less glamorous, but fulfilling just the same. Sometimes, you just have to get cheated out of $500 million dollars (and maybe thrown out the window of a skyscraper) to find them.