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Snake eyes: Tom Green tries to out-ugly a pet snake in the lamentable Road Trip.

Bad 'Trip'

Philosopher Alain de Botton uncovers the secret cruelty of 'feel-good' films

By David Templeton

Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

ALAIN DE BOTTON is not comfortable in shopping malls. Nevertheless, here he is: perched on a plastic chair in front of a plastic table in the midst of a food court at the center of a massive mall. The celebrated philosopher is similarly disinclined toward seeing raunchy lowbrow comedies like Road Trip. And yet that's exactly what we've just done.

We've seen Road Trip. At a theater. In this very same shopping mall.

Life is funny that way.

De Botton, author of the bestselling How Proust Can Change Your Life and the brand-new Consolations of Philosophy--and a director of the graduate philosophy program at London University--has cheerfully agreed to bring his considerable expertise to bear on today's film.

Starring MTV's Tom Green, Road Trip is like Homer's Odyssey, but with fart jokes. It follows a motley band of college guys who journey from upstate New York to Austin, Texas, on a quest to intercept a video that's been accidentally mailed to Josh's girlfriend, Tiffany. The video, it seems, shows Josh having sex with someone named Beth. Crudity ensues. Cars crash. Snakes bite people. Numerous breasts are displayed.

There is a happy ending.

"Road Trip is very much, um, a 'feel-good movie,' " de Botton remarks. He utters those words--"feel-good movie"--a bit reluctantly, as if he were saying, "Hey, I'm going to a shopping mall to watch Road Trip."

But wait a minute. Is there something wrong with feel-good movies?

"Well, yes," he replies. "In Road Trip, for example, it sets up a situation in which all sorts of conflicts are happily resolved by the film's end. Yet of course life isn't like that. So you leave the theater feeling good about those people in the movie. You think, 'Well, their lives have all worked out nicely, but what about mine?'

"Here I am in a food court at 4 in the afternoon," de Botton continues, "surrounded by people whose lives are probably not going all that well because, after all, they're in a food court at 4 in the afternoon, surrounded by artificial music and artificial trees, with a vague sense of menace and despair in the air.

"Most feel-good films are actually quite cruel," he adds, "because they can leave us feeling irritated and perturbed about our own lives--even though we might have had a good time in the cinema.

"Which, by the way, I did," he concludes. "I must confess that I rather enjoyed myself."

In The Consolations of Philosophy (Pantheon; $22.95), de Botton takes a joyride of his own. He deftly maneuvers through the teachings of his six favorite philosophers: Socrates, Schopenhauer, Montaigne, Epicurus, Seneca, and Nietzsche--an assortment of gentlemen every bit as motley as the young crew in Road Trip, though quite a bit smarter.

In a fast 200 pages, de Botton mines the teachings of these six illustrious thinkers, extracting some dazzling gems of practical wisdom, ideas that speak to the pains and insecurities of the average modern-day human.

"So, what would my six philosophers say about Road Trip?" de Botton wonders. "First of all, I think Schopenhauer would say this is a dangerous film, because it's a fairy tale."

Arthur Schopenhauer. Born in Danzig, 1788. Notorious pessimist. Once said, "Life is a sorry business." Died in 1860.

"Schopenhauer valued art a lot," says de Botton. "He believed that art should prepare us for life, that art should help us meet life head-on by dealing with difficult issues. He'd probably say that truly realistic films, films that make you appreciate real conflicts, can help reconcile you to the nasty conditions of life. So Road Trip misses doing what art should do, because it hints at the difficulties of life, and then the fairy-tale ending allows everyone to avoid having to deal with those difficulties.

"SOMEONE like Montaigne, however, would take a lighter approach." That's Michel de Montaigne. Born in France in 1533. Died in 1592. Known to make fart jokes.

"He'd probably say that Road Trip was amusing and fun, and he'd have especially responded to the idea that these characters really needed to get in touch with their bodies," says de Botton. "Various characters in the film are kind of 'rescued' by sex: the nerdy, dweeby guy, for instance, who loses his virginity and promptly becomes a stronger, more confident person. "

Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844-1900, the German thinker who often expounded the joys and benefits of conflict and suffering, is harder to pinpoint.

"Nietzsche, if he were in a good mood, would have read this thing as a much-too-sentimental resolution of conflict," de Botton says. "They avoid suffering, so avoid wisdom. On the other hand, Nietzsche did like some stunningly bad art. He liked reading bad sentimental novels about princesses being rescued and things like that.

"I can't imagine Epicurus sitting through this," he continues. "And Seneca would have hated it." Epicurus being the Greek philosopher who taught around 200 B.C., and Seneca being a Roman statesman and Nero's teacher who was ordered to kill himself in A.D. 65--and complied.

"If forced to see it, Epicurus might focus on the idea of love and friendship," de Botton says. "The film was about buddies. So Epicurus might point out that friendship is an important part of happiness. Seneca would have had no interest in it whatsoever. He considered hopefulness to be a doorway to frustration."

And what about Socrates?

"Well, he might have appreciated the film," suggests de Botton. "He'd have liked its cynical view of teachers and academia. Knowledge was the kind of thing you might acquire in the back of a bus while talking with some guy smoking pot."

De Botton stops and looks around.

"Socrates," he says with a smile, "would probably be out here in this food court, eagerly talking to people about their lives."

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From the June 8-14, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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