Saturday, December 27, 2014
The Trip to Italy
In Alejandro Inarittu's film Birdman, a character denounces a theater critic: "All you have to offer is some adjectives and a few half-assed comparisons," the aggrieved artist shouts. So far as it goes, this critique of critics applies to this note: comparisons, "half-assed" or otherwise are integral to an assessment of Michael Winterbottom's comedy, The Italian Trip. The movie, edited into a two-hour film from a much longer British TV series, concerns two British celebrities, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who are dispatched to Italy to make a TV show about the exquisite local cuisine and lodgings. Coogan and Brydon play variants of themselves, performing in the movie under their real names and they appear to have improvised all the dialogue. Unlike American "reality" TV shows, or meta-reality "reality" shows (for instance HBO's The Come-Back), the machinery of filmmaker is not emphasized: the two men travel alone, without a sound-crew or cameramen, begging the question as to how the television show in which they ostensibly star is being filmed -- in a way, The Italian Journey requires a breathtaking audience suspension of disbelief: these men are supposed to be filmed at every stage of their travels, but there is no documentary crew anywhere in evidence, an omission that, curiously, the viewer doesn't really sense until thinking about the movie later. The film is buddy-picture road movie featuring two mismatched travelers: Coogan is vain, self-regarding, an established movie star but a little bit dim and no match for the mercurial wit that Brydon shows. Brydon is a mimic of uncanny brilliance, wounded in some obscure way, and a man who retreats from his own emotions and sense of grievance behind a blinding mask of impressions: in the film, he imitates Humphrey Bogart, then, imitates Coogan's imitation of Bogart, mimics Michael Caine, Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Tom Hardy as Bane in the Batman films, Gore Vidal, and, of course, displays his alarmingly eerie voice of the "little man in the box" -- those strangled words, emanating as a wee whisper from somewhere within Brydon's soft palate, are employed in a dialogue between the actor and the cast of a Pompeiian corpse in a glass casket, a demonstration of heartless virtuosity that disgusts Coogan who walks away in dismay. Ostensibly, the tour of Italy, proceeding through the most magnificent landscapes imaginable, involves retracing the steps of Lord Byron and Shelley down the peninsula. The film reprises the two men's earlier series made with Winterbottom, The Trip, in which the mismatched couple traveled through the British lake country in the footsteps of Coleridge and Wordsworth. The fact that the men are retracing the travels of great poets gives the film an imaginative density of reference and a faint burden of melancholy that increases as the picture proceeds. The Trip to Italy is bleaker than the first film -- the men are older and the shadow of death falls heavily across them: many of the scenes are shot in cemeteries and there is a sequence in the ossuary in Naples that directly cites a similar scene in Rossellini's Journey to Italy. As in Rossellini's film, the Trip to Italy recounts the story of a couple always seething with resentment, prone to adultery, and, more or less, ignoring the gorgeous setting in favor of picking petty quarrels with one another. In the course of the film, Brydon has a pointless affair and lands a job on a big American motion picture, Coogan reconnects with his estranged son -- the journey changes nothing: the men don't learn anything -- they remain buffoons, quarreling sadly over whether any trace of them will remain in two-hundred years. Despite its startling beauty, the film has a autumnal feeling, the sense of life slipping away, an effect enhanced by the repeated strains of Strauss' resplendent late song In Abendrot heard from time to time on the soundtrack,. The film is a matter of taste: I admire Byron and Shelley, have read Richard Holmes' book about Shelley, and, of course, have fond memories of trips to Italy. For these reasons, I enjoyed the movie immensely. But it's pointless in a particularly elegant way -- as pointless, I suppose as Basho's The Narrow Road to the Deep North -- and an audience expecting jokes and comedy will be puzzled by the film's depiction of sad, fundamentally hollow and incomplete men, eating luscious dinners, concealing their animosity behind impressions of other more famous men and panicked by their own mortality.