There was a time when Hollywood road trips were cool, a journey of anarchic freedom belonging to the outsider. Back in 1969, when Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper took to their bikes in Easy Rider, they symbolised the US's brewing counterculture. This was swiftly followed by such cult films as Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop, both summing up the nation's post-Woodstock mood as they roared across the highways and byways.
But as Hollywood has proved lately, the road trip isn't exclusively an existential journey for those living off-the-grid. These days, the family road trip is just as popular. In films such as Little Miss Sunshine and The Darjeeling Limited, it's relative values that audiences are responding to. And it certainly is a perfect set-up: putting the dysfunctional family on the road is a way of taking them out of their comfort zone, leaving them in close quarters with those who annoy them the most.
Consider Little Miss Sunshine, which took more than US$100 million (Dh367m) at the box office and was nominated for four Oscars, with its story of the Hoover family racing from New Mexico to California to attend a beauty pageant. As the star Toni Collette put it, it was the ideal means to force re-evaluation on the family. "The family are all so caught up in their own worlds, and being forced to sit in a yellow VW van for days on end, it makes them learn to appreciate each other a bit more."
The latest is The Guilt Trip, originally titled My Mother's Curse and based on a trip taken by the screenwriter Dan Fogelman and his mother, from New Jersey to Las Vegas. The film stars Seth Rogen as Andy Brewster, an inventor who hits the road to sell his new product - an environmentally friendly cleaning fluid. When his widowed mother Joyce (Barbra Streisand) comes along for the ride, this mismatched duo take in all manner of Americana - casinos, steakhouses and strip clubs.
Its broad comedy puts it alongside such buddy-buddy road movies as Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), in which Steve Martin's highly strung ad exec travels with the eternally annoying John Candy, or Due Date (2010), in which Robert Downey Jr's highly strung architect is bugged by Zach Galifianakis.
The difference is that Streisand plays the typical Jewish matriarch, something Fogelman remembers all too well from his time with his own mother. "When we took the road trip together, she drove me crazy," he laughs. "It was never ugly. It was loving, but [I was] frustrated."
While spiritual odysseys such as Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited and David Lynch's The Straight Story were all about brothers finding each other while on the move, it would be wrong to say the "family" road trip was invented in the era of touchy-feely therapy sessions. Look at John Ford's classic adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath from 1940, when Henry Fonda leads his clan from Oklahoma in search of a new life in California during the Great Depression.
In the 1980s came the National Lampoon's Vacation movies, in which Chevy Chase and his all-American Griswold family perfectly personified loud, garrulous American tourists. The idea has been regurgitated in Road Trip and Euro Trip, and plans are afoot to deliver another National Lampoon film, this time with Ed Helms playing the grown-up son Rusty Griswold. We may no longer be in the era of Easy Rider, but the family road trip shows we're still all born to be wild.