Carless in Hollywood

I finally got around to seeing Greenberg the other night, and I’ll reserve commentary on the film save for one aspect that intrigued me: The idea that the eponymous character, just coming out of a breakdown and drifting through life, does not drive. He did at one point, it seems, but after moving to New York, his license seemed to lapse (this town will do that to you). This becomes the subject of more than one joke in the film (watch Greenberg the pedestrian struggling through vehicular L.A., watch him be emasculated as he asks a woman to drive him, etc.).

It left me wondering: What other films have use car-less-ness, or a non-ability to drive, as an occasion for some kind of scorn, pity, laughable contempt or outright comedy? Has non-driving ever been presented admirably in a film?

This entry was posted on Monday, July 5th, 2010 at 7:14 am and is filed under Cars, Cities. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

50 Responses to “Carless in Hollywood”

  1. Abhishek Says:

    Steve Carell in 40 year old virgin
    Dennis Quaid in Smart People (2008)

    i am sure there are more.

  2. Zyzzyx Says:

    First film that comes to mind is ’40 Year Old Virgin’. Lead character rides a bike, and it is used as comedy a few times.

  3. Gary Says:

    Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure…that’s the most positive representation of car-free character that I can recall

  4. Brian Says:

    More in the vein of 40YOV (including TV):

    Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
    Arrested Development (Jason Bateman rides a bike…or drives the Stair Car)
    Get a Life

  5. Deb Says:

    The only films I can think of where non-driving is presented favorably are the adventure films. Ride The Divide comes to mind, but there are also several about people’s trips through south america. (Can’t think of titles off the top of my head.) But a more mainstream (and 20 year old) movie – Breaking Away. I haven’t seen it, but people keep telling me to watch it. Though I think it’s about racing, not about biking to get places, or as part of the lifestyle.

  6. Brent Says:

    Some foreign films present non-driving characters well: Il Postino’s mail delivery is by bicycle, and Paris (from 2009) puts its love interest on a bicycle.

  7. Simstim Says:

    Godard’s Week End doesn’t put the drivers in a good light (it’s kind of like an anti-road movie).

  8. Brad Says:

    Not film, but in TV Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex and the City (all NYC based) almost all characters were carless. Seinfeld and Sex and the City had some memorable scenes/episodes of when the characters are forced to drive.

  9. Ed Says:

    Repo Man. Miller: “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are”.

  10. Dave in KY Says:

    Quicksilver, starring Kevin Bacon, is a totally unsubtle (and almost unwatchable) car-versus-bike smackdown. The bicyclists win, largely because it’s a bicycle cheerleading movie.

    Whisper of the Heart is a charming representation of alternative mobility I’ve ever seen. In it, a 14 year old girl in Japan enjoys more mobility than you or I have in America. She achieves this by aggressively mode juggling in a country that hasn’t tied it’s fate to the automobile. Remember how 14-year olds are treated like vermin in America, harassed by mallcops etc? Well, in Japan, they can actually move about and are free, so they’re not an underclass.

    The movie version of “The History Boys” shows English youths in the 1980s doing just fine with their 8-speeds, thank you very much.

    There’s some Meg Ryan is a free spirit who rides a bicycle in LA or somewhere like that. Wow, isn’t she sweet/free? Then she falls in love with some guy (Nicholas Cage?), and in the epilogue, gets run over by a truck and killed. Not a very subtle message there, guys.

    Breaking Away is a coming of age story, that kind-of tells you you can only bicycle if you’re elite. I don’t buy that. I did love the movie, though.

  11. doug Says:

    Maybe one of the (unintentionally) funnier parts of 40 Year Old Virgin is when his girlfriend gets him a piece-of-crap department store mountain bike and he ditches his awesome super-custom commuted ride. I think most people have strange ideas about what a “nice bicycle” is.

  12. Eileen Says:

    Buffy didn’t drive. Still manage to slay the bad vampires (who did drive) and demons, though.

    Buffy: Driving?
    Riley: Yeah.
    Buffy: You seriously drive for fun?
    Riley: Well, not four-wheeling or anything, but yeah. Don’t you?
    Buffy: Actually, no-wheeling is more my specialty. I’m an avid pedestrian.
    Riley: You’re kidding, right? I mean, you know how to drive?
    Buffy: Well, I took the class. Cars and Buffy are, like, unmixy things.
    Riley: It’s just because you haven’t had a good experience yet. You can have the best time in a car. It’s not about getting somewhere. You have to take your time. Forget about everything. Just relax. Let it wash over you. The air, the motion. Just let it roll.
    Buffy: We are talking about driving, right?

    There’s an article (from which I snatched the above quote) on this issue at .

  13. Jason Says:

    In I heart Huckabees the mark wahlberg character gets around by bike.

    He’s portrayed positively but also somewhat a figure of fun .

    In ‘Into the wild’ the lead character ditches his car, burns his money and hitchhikes the rest of the movie.

  14. Michael M. Says:

    Just about the only memorable line in the otherwise forgettable “Legion” (2010), a religious-themed apocalyptic horror film, had the Archangel Michael explaining to a group of down-and-outs trapped at a remote diner that the very pregnant female’s child would be humanity’s savior. The woman exclaims credulously, “Why me? I’m nobody. I’m just a waitress.” Then she adds, “I don’t even own a car!”

    ==MILD SPOILER, if anyone cares==
    Further, it turns out later in the movie that a car is pretty useless when you’re trying to escape the Archangel Gabriel. Now you know.

  15. RJK Says:

    500 Days of Summer is the only movie I can think of that a) takes place in Los Angeles; and b) where the main characters walk, ride the bus, the train, and generally live an urban lifestyle, without making a big deal out of it. Though there is a scene or two in a car, it doesn’t seem to be their primary means of getting around.

  16. Brendan Says:

    Falling Down with Michael Douglas!

  17. Vin Says:

    Brad: Never really watched Friends or Sex and the City, but in Senfield they actually drive quite a lot. There are a number of episodes that revolve around cars and driving, and Jerry, George and Kramer – Elaine, oddly enough, never has a car – are frequently seen driving around Manhattan in their own cars. Indeed, the frequency with which the characters drive in Manhattan is probably one of the most unrealistic things about the show. They certainly do it far more often than taking the subway.

    Some major episodes/plot lines revolving around cars:
    The parking garage episode.
    The double episode in which the mechanic steals Jerry’s car.
    The parking spot episode, in which George and an acquaintance of Kramer’s get into an argument over who has rights to the spot.
    The “smelly car” episode.
    The episode in which George uses a shady parking lot that doubles as brothel.
    The episode in which an old friend of Jerry’s buys him a van.
    The episode in which George won’t shut up about getting a good parking space near a hospital, only to have someone jump off the building and land on his car.
    The one where Jerry has to be nice to a friend who pretended to have cancer, because the friend is getting George a cheap parking space.

    These are just the ones off the top of my head…surely, there are more. And, yes, I know WAY too much about Seinfeld. Its true that Seinfeld hardly glamorizes driving, instead using the frustrations of NYC driving (and, just as often, parking) as a source of comedy. Still, cars play a major role in the show, which is strange considering the characters are nearly all Manhattanites.

  18. flynnzo Says:

    Hmm. There are films I can think of where alternate modes of transportation are presented in good ways. There seem to be two big themes, though. Either the movie’s really old or set in the past, and the characters are young – maybe too young for driver’s licenses.

    There’s Brick, which as I think about it, has a complicated relationship with cars. It’s an old-fashioned noir set in a modern high school. The main character doesn’t drive, and it’s presented as a mild inconvenience, I think. Cars are associated with danger. It’s a luxury that usually only the bad guys can afford.

    Donnie Darko has all the teenagers riding bikes, and they seem to just represent freedom. Again, it’s set in the past and the characters are too young for cars.

    There are a couple sports movies that involve running as transportation, but it’s always a part of training. Sidekicks, Remember the Titans… maybe even Rocky would fall into this category.

    40 Days and 40 Nights is the only one I can think of that is modern and adult. In that movie, the romantic leads take a romantic bus ride to nowhere together. But I think that the major reason this movie stays walkable is because of a fairly minor character who only travels by messenger bike: the awesome, too-cool “Bagel Guy.” I feel like Bagel Guy could only really exist in an urban movie world. So that’s what they ended up doing, rather than setting it in generic, Everyonedrivestowork Land.

    I suppose other urban movies probably qualify, if they’re set in New York or Boston (for example), rather than Los Angeles. Working Girl rides the ferries, Good Will Hunting takes the Red Line and hitches rides with friends, hell, even Adventures in Babysitting loses the car once it hits the city limits and travels by foot the rest of the time. And sometimes by roller skate! To rescue a friend at the Bus Depot, no less!

  19. Josh R Says:

    Of course there’s always anime.

  20. GD Says:

    I had actually considered submitting something for Nimble Cities on exactly that topic. I.e. “put walkers and bikers in more movies”

    500 Days of Summer is indeed relevant because its protagonists are “normal,” successful, and it’s L.A. we’re talking about. The film did wonders to how I can now imagine a city I’ve only once seen from the air (and quite often on film and in photos). I think it was cultural geographer Edward Soja who argues that audiences both in North America and worldwide desperately should upgrade their imaginary of L.A., as it is too often misrepresented.

    Can’t think of many other examples though; Singles at least has a protagonist who dreams of carless cities. European films often have public transport as one of the most normal things in the world, but I don’t know how many make it to the U.S. IIRC, Amélie was comparatively successful, and there, Paris’ train stations provide part of the plot.

  21. Mitch Says:

    In “All the President’s Men,” Carl Bernstein uses a bike to get around. (It’s been a while since I saw the film, and I don’t remember if he’s actually seen riding the bike, but I remember seeing his front wheel at his desk).

    This is one of the details that establishes Bernstein as something of a flake and an outsider — which turns out to be a good thing in this case.

  22. DoctorJay Says:

    Napolean Dynamite takes the bus, and his buddy Pedro rides a bike, the “Sledge Hammer”.

  23. thm Says:

    Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall–an aversion to driving is one of his many neuroses.

  24. Nick Says:

    The title character in “Dave” rides a bike.

  25. Cathy Says:

    The lone guy in “The Jane Austen Book Club,” played by Hugh Dancy, bikes everywhere by choice, and is darned sexy doing it. (He also has an old Mercedes which he runs on vegetable oil, which he says he “hardly ever gets to drive.”)

  26. ATG Says:

    The iconic 1990s film “Singles” involves a surprising number of scenes dipicting various transportation modes in both flattering and unflattering lights, including a negative depiction of a character trying to embrace bicycling to impress a date and a life-changing car crash. Many of the characters are at least partly defined by their transprotation choices. It is also, to my knowledge, the only movie in which a main character is a transportation engineer. The character is largely defined by his long-term quest to convince the city to construct an improved commuter rail line, which he idealistically beleives will improve transit use in notoriously transit-resistant Seattle. The resolution of the matter is definitely the most memorable (and telling) discussion of public transit in any movie I can think of.

  27. T. J. Says:

    In the original Karate Kid and Gran Torino – the carless hero works through an ordeal to prove himself worthy and at the end is rewarded with a car.

  28. Ben Says:


    To continue Vin’s point regarding Seinfeld, I think Seinfeld is by far the best show for the carless.

    The characters frequently take the subway, even if it’s only mentioned in passing (Elaine complaining about switching lines to visit her elderly boyfriend, etc). Kramer also takes the bus (and memorably has to drive it). Kramer also tries to start a rickshaw business!

    A lot of the car comedy comes from borrowing friend’s cars, like when George borrows Jerry’s and his Dad’s (in one of my favorite episodes, when he is the “bad boy”). I always got the impression from Seinfeld that having a car in the city meant either 1) you were wealthy and aloof (Jerry) 2) you were an eccentric (Kramer) or 3) you were living with your parents in Queens (George).

    Seinfeld might be the only show where having a car was almost looked down on. There aren’t many cases where a car is featured in an episode that something doesn’t go horribly awry with it. (Stolen, lost, stunk up, damaged, parking space altercations, ripped off by mechanics, ripped off by salesmen, etc.)

    Great topic!

  29. Steve Says:

    Harry O, detective drama from the 70s, starring the wonderful David Janssen as a detective in L.A. who doesn’t drive. Think pathetic Philip Marlowe. Harry’s non-driving was used to comic/dramatic effect, as when he was riding a bus and being tailed by someone in a car.

  30. Bob the Car Guy Says:

    I thought of the HBO Series Entourage. Vince doesn’t drive until the last couple of seasons. It wasn’t played like he was a loser. It was more of a privileged thing thing that he was a natural and was so good at being who he was that he attracted people who took care of him. Even before the money and fame he naturally attracted an entourage. But it’s not really that he using his friends they just kind of fell in to a situation where they work as a collective playing off each other’s strengths.

  31. Woking Says:

    Speed. Sandra Bullock and the others on the bus are there because they don’t drive.

  32. RolyH Says:

    As a non-driver, this is something I had felt for years and years. And then, last year, came (500) Days of Summer, and this week I saw the wonderful Away We Go. It is never made a point of in that film, but John Krakowski’s character is never seen driving, and instead relies on his girlfriend to drive them on large parts of their trip. It is never an issue, and isn’t meant to represent how reliant he is on his pregnant girlfriend: he could not be a more attentive partner. Goes to show not being a driver is not a character flaw that leaves the non-driver impotent.

  33. Al Ka-Pwn Says:

    the main character in ‘waking life’ is carless and gets run over, ultimately because he couldn’t get a ride from the bus station.

  34. Adam Says:

    Can I assume you’re including motorcycles in the same categories as cars? i.e. this is really about the portrayal of walking/biking/public transit?

    On the Life and Time of Jackie Woodman TV show with Laura Kightlinger, one of the more insightful TV shows about life in entertainment-adjacent LA, Jackie the main character doesn’t drive, and mooches rides from her co-worker best friend. But it’s not really presented negatively, just a part of their sometimes parasitic relationship.

    My $0.02: when I lived in LA, my license was suspended for points, so I had to take the bus bike and subway for a year. While I’m impressed by both systems, they just generally sucked compared to driving. It’s a big diffuse landscape, and no mass transit system can ever really tame it. Also, vehicle just don’t see bikers, so biking always scared the shit out of me.

    In short: not having a car in LA sucks. Ergo, people who don’t have cars must be damaged/different to put up with it. I wouldn’t be offended. It’s Hollywood – you need shorthand because it’s a shortcut for real exposition.

  35. Evan Torner Says:

    Hamlet 2 (2008) portrays a ridiculous Steve Coogan on roller skates in Tucson, AZ due to some kind of previous DUI. A more emasculated character I have not yet seen.

  36. J.F. Says:

    Great Canadian indie movie about two brothers from Montreal living in LA called Passenger Side (after the Wilco song) from 2009. One brother has to drive the other around all day running errands. The non-driving brother is a former junkie, of course.

  37. David Says:

    This goes back at least 60 years — all the way to Sunset Boulevard where Joe Gillis is running away from the repo men trying to take his car.

  38. DAR Says:

    No one has mentioned Burn After Reading. Brad Pitt’s character is clearly mocked for his commitment to fitness and the bicycle (and the reality of his idiocy). “Ha! You think that’s a Schwinn!”

  39. Marc McDonald Says:

    “Speed” is one of the most pro-car, anti-public transport movies ever. When we meet the main character, played by Sandra Bullock, she is gloomy and unhappy about being forced to ride the bus because her car is in the repair shop. Another character remarks about the advantages of a bus, and she disagrees, saying, “I miss my car.”

    Riding public transport could hardly be depicted as less appealing in this movie, where a terrorist puts a bomb on the bus and nearly kills everyone.

  40. wilner Says:

    Will Smith portraying would-be real life stockbroker Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness (2006). Takes place in SF and not Hollywood, so it may not be much of a point since SF is so crowded, not having a car is doesn’t quite have the stigma that not having a car in LA has.

  41. wilner Says:

    I should add, has anyone explored the mindset of REAL people who don’t drive, e.g. science fiction author Ray Bradbury who is one of the few Angelenos who doesn’t own a car and never learned how to drive? I bet Manhattan has quite a few individuals with the same history.

  42. Rya Says:

    The most positive bicycle movie of alltime has to be “E.T.” Aliens don’t drive!

  43. RedFern Says:

    Harold Crick from Stranger Than Fiction (2006) takes the bus. It is a major part of the plot with many scenes taking place at the bus stop or riding in the bus. The character is the quintessential bookish type, an IRS numbers man with compulsions. It is never looked down upon or cast in an unfavorable light but as whenever a bus is used in film, someone gets off at the wrong stop and has to walk the rest of the way.

    Natalie Portman’s character, Sam, in Garden State cannot drive because she is an “eccentric epileptic and compulsive liar”. The main character Zach Braff also has a peculiar method of transport in the form of an old military style motorcycle with sidecar.

  44. Matt Says:

    I’ve noticed that most NYC-based TV shows depict nobody ever using the MTA–unless they’re poor or destitute. And when they do, the rider emerges with tales of creeps and weirdos. Taxis, car services, and personal cars are the name of the game. _Sex and the City_. _Seinfeld_. _How I Met Your Mother_. _30 Rock_.

    In _How I Met Your Mother_, the characters use taxis or their own cars for almost everything. Taxi to JFK to pick up a friend and another taxi back to Manhattan? Better be glad it’s TV, otherwise, that would be a $90 round trip. You also learn in this show that it’s worth it to fly between JFK and Philadelphia.

    In _Big Bang Theory_, set in Pasadena, Sheldon, the Einstein-esque, socially clueless, personality-challenged theoretical physicist, does not drive–he considers himself above such menial labor. He’s never depicted using mass transit, though.

  45. Rick Says:

    Surprised no one remembered Ferris Bueller.

    From “I asked for a car, I got a computer. How’s that for being born under a bad sign?” to “I quote John Lennon, ‘I don’t believe in Beatles, I just believe in me.’ Good point there. After all, he was the walrus. I could be the walrus. I’d still have to bum rides off people.”

    And how does he escape his humdrum high school life? “The 1961 Ferrari 250GT California. Less than a hundred were made. [Cameron’s] father spent three years restoring this car. It is his love, it is his passion.” / Ferris: “It’s his fault he didn’t lock the garage.”

  46. Edward Says:

    It only seems to be Hollywood films that do this. There is a great crime show from Denmark called the Eagle about a crack team of specialist police officers. The forensic accountant, Villy Frandsen, rides a bike all over the place and looks cool doing it.

    In another Danish police show, Anna Pihl, in the first episode, the main character drops off her son with her ex-husband (after bringing him on the back of a bike). She then cycles off, is seen staring out of the train window relaxed and watching fields go by before she arrives, again by bike, at her father’s house in the country.

    In English films, they don’t put the goofy characters on bikes. They give them questionable cars – like Mr Bean in his three-wheeler Reliant Regal.

  47. Femmefatale Says:

    On “Law and Order: SVU”, Casey Novak is seen biking or walking to courtrooms. I’m sure a high-powered Assistant DA could buy a car if she wanted.

  48. Betsy Says:

    In Jacques Tati’s film “Mon Oncle” (“My Uncle”), the title character (the hero) rides a beater bike whereas the ridiculous, conformist couple drive a fancy new car as one of their many silly modern gadgets. They end up getting trapped in their own garage.

    Other sympathetic characters are on foot or even drive old horsecarts. The drivers of cars are silly, money-grubbing, status-seekers, whereas pedestrians and cyclists are presented as genuine, friendly, and subtle.

  49. Vince Says:

    There’s Gary, the abusive boyfriend of Jean (JLo)in “An Unfinished Life.” He tracks her out to her father-in-law Einar’s (Robert Redford) ranch.
    He is ultimately humiliated, not by being beaten or even by having his convertible shot up. The coup de gras is his last appearance looking out a Greyhound window (from the back). Then let’s not forget the more humorous humiliation of Einar when he cannot start his ancient truck and has to clumsily peddle a bicycle to town, suffering several jibes from neighbors on the way.

  50. Barbara Says:

    Monster – Aileen Wournos cycling a boneshaker to an interview she is bound to fail, along a madly busy road (not sure where in America)cuts a tragic/pathetic figure.

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