Traveling a noble cinematic tradition, “Coast to Coast” is a road picture. But not a rite-of-passage road picture. Or a caper kind of road picture.
Instead, “Coast to Coast” accompanies a middle-aged couple on the brink of divorce as they drive from their about-to-be-former Connecticut home across the country to Los Angeles.
This is a road trip whose stated reason is the wedding ceremony of their son, who, as a wedding gift, will get their vintage Thunderbird, which is delivering them there.
But, as with life, what really matters in “Coast to Coast” is the journey, not the destination. Barnaby, a retired sitcom writer (Richard Dreyfuss in a commanding performance), and his wife, Maxine (the sublime Judy Davis), make many stops along this transcontinental memory lane as they head toward what seems the end of their long marriage.
“Coast to Coast,” which premieres 8 p.m. ET Sunday on Showtime, also stars Maximilian Schell, Fred Ward, Saul Rubinek, Selma Blair and David Julian Hirsch.
It is directed by Paul Mazursky, no stranger to humor or humanism in films including the road picture “Harry and Tonto” and the Dreyfuss-starring hit “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.”
Frederic Raphael, whose many film scripts include the classic road romance “Two for the Road,” adapted the “Coast to Coast” screenplay from his 1999 novel of the same name.
The result is often funny, more often bittersweet. Familiar yet unpredictable. And refreshingly adult.
“What was Paula?” the wife presses her husband during a robust exchange about their infidelities.
“Maybe she was a slice of turkey, when no one was looking,” says Barnaby. “What was Hal?”
“A long, long time ago,” Maxine replies.
No wonder Dreyfuss was eager to make the film.
A perfect fit for Dreyfuss“One of the great things about (Raphael’s) script is that you know he’s THERE — he didn’t get up one morning and say, ‘I think I’ll do a thing about divorce.’ He didn’t do that. He put it down on paper in this complete way. And you go, ‘Oh, yeah! I know that!”’
Now 56, Dreyfuss knows about divorce, and even more pointedly, about midlife crisis. As with his character Barnaby, that remains a sticky issue for Dreyfuss, too.
“Oh, no, I’ve not moved off THAT dime,” he says, deploying the manic little chuckle recognizable to millions of moviegoers ever since he played high schooler Curt Henderson in “American Graffiti” three decades ago.
“But I guess I always did that, was always introspective, thinking, ‘When am I ...?’ I’m still doing that, just with a different When.”
So why, then, does Dreyfuss — as he finishes lunch in a midtown coffee shop — look so frisky, so rarin’ to go?
Maybe it’s his current venture: his starring role in the revival of “Sly Fox,” at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre right across 47th Street.
First produced on Broadway in 1976, the madcap comedy by Larry Gelbart (the TV series “M*A*S*H”) mirrors Ben Jonson’s 400-year-old “Volpone,” in which a miserly rich man pretends to be dying so as to fleece the opportunists trying to finagle their way into his will.
“This is a yukfest,” glows Dreyfuss from beneath his baseball cap. “And the character is huge!”
Besides: This puts him — an actor most identified with a half-dozen totemic movies (among them “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and his Oscar-winning “Goodbye Girl”) — back on Broadway, which, after a dozen years’ absence, he had forgotten he loves so much.
“I was BORN here! I was born in this experience! Right here: Getting to the theater when it’s empty, saying ‘Hi’ to the stage manager.” (He’s set for more come November, headlining the London run of the smash musical “The Producers.”)
When the interview is over, he will start his nightly regimen, which he is happy to describe:
“I get to the theater a couple of hours early. I try to be alone, no conversation for hopefully an hour and a half. Then” — a comic pause and that chuckle again — “I get really nervous!”
But, looking anything but nervous, he reports that the show, “with all the jumping around, which doesn’t come naturally to me anymore, takes my mind off of me, away from all that midlife crisis stuff.”
No wonder he’s grinning as he heads across the street. Curtain time is nearing. “It gives me a rest!”