Wednesday, September 3, 2014

La Dolce Vita: The Trip to Italy

Movies like Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip (2010) elude the reductive marketing categories of studio advertising. The trailer pitched the film as a buddy flick and a road movie, which was certainly true. But those qualities, and the loose-limbed improvisational humor from Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, belied its directorial craftsmanship and thematic depth. Winterbottom put on this front intentionally, letting the easy pleasures of the comic structure seduce you into the serious philosophical question at play: Namely, what makes for the good life? Coogan and Brydon traipse around the countryside of northern England, taking in coldly beautiful vistas, fine French cuisine, and precious fraternal companionship. Yet only one of them, Mr. Brydon, actually enjoys the manifold pleasures surrounding them. Mr. Coogan can’t get out of his own egotism. He stumbles through the excursion in haze of pot, career ambitions, empty one-night stands, and narcissistic self-pity. Everything’s a competition with him, even their leisurely impersonations of Michael Caine and James Bond, and you winch at how he squanders relationships – including that with his good friend. For a moment, standing on a cliff of prehistoric rock formations, he steps outside himself and beholds the scene’s grandeur with wonder. But it’s short-lived and he quickly snaps back into his unhappy prison. Winterbottom contrasts him with Brydon’s simpleminded joviality and stable family life, and the picture ends with the question it secretly begins with: Why are some people blissfully content and others impossible to satisfy?

But if the studio execs didn’t know what to make of this character study last time, they’ve got a second chance with the release of The Trip to Italy, Winterbottom’s follow-up (both began as BBC series before morphing into feature films). And he’s made it easier for them, requiring less critical thinking and more pleasurable imbibing. The director and his two actors cut right to the chase (or the road as it were) repeating the premise of the first installment: The pair are to review a series of meals they share on holiday, this time in Italy. In a flash, they’re cruising Piedmont mountain roads in a Mini Cooper and dining on the culinary delights of the Cinque Terre. The ribald banter is back, even more uproarious than before: Coogan and Brydon mind meld into a withering parody of The Dark Knight Rises, the latter yelling inaudibly into his mouth in mockery of Bain before switching to an absurdly hoarse Christian Bale. Coogan matches and even exceeds him later in Capri with an impossibly dead-on imitation of Brando’s Don Corleone. But his is done in reverence; their skewering of Christopher Nolan is mercilessly accurate. Winterbottom also quickly dispatches the question of what a second movie, using the same structure as its predecessor, could have left to say. The boys take jabs at bands who succumb to “second-album syndrome,” after a successful debut; the self-awareness here disarms you with ease.

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in The Trip to Italy
Winterbottom chooses to avoid the same fate by crafting a less ambitious picture. That means less subtext and fewer implications when you take the film as a whole; there’s more simple enjoyment. But it’s not to say there’s nothing going on. If the first series chalked up the difference in Coogan’s and Brydon’s happiness to a matter of temperamental constitution, the second calls that conclusion into question. For this time it’s Coogan who’s enjoying the ride, while Brydon’s enjoying it too much. The misty, dark, and gnarled uplands of the north set the mood of The Trip, and the landscape mirrored Coogan’s depressed psyche. It was if we’d fallen down the extremities of melancholic-choleric personality and tumbled out into the English chill. Now, we’ve swapped minds; The Trip to Italy is set in an extension of Brydon’s sanguine self, going into hyperdrive even as Coogan’s regained equilibrium. Brydon’s got a touch of mania about him with his ceaseless character voices and lighting-quick repartee. And if it still entertains, it also sucks up energy and gets Brydon ahead of himself. His home life, a source of comfort and stability for him before, has soured –his wife’s too distracted with their daughter to meet his emotional needs. And whereas previously he evinced little concern over his career, he’s discovered the taste of ambition now, his agent dangling a supporting role in an American film that he talks up (and exaggerates) to his friend. His chipper step has extra bounce now, and he finds himself becoming a bit of the Casanova he’s reading – he charms and beds an Italian tour guide he meets on a ship, almost surprised by his own success. Coogan’s life was a hot mess four years ago. Suddenly, it’s Brydon’s that hangs in the balance as everything seems there for his taking and losing.

The Trip saw Coogan trying to imitate the great man he was reading (in his case, Wordsworth), not Brydon. But now it’s Steve falling asleep like a baby a few pages into Byron. Gone is the competitiveness and desperate need to establish himself, like the scraggly locks that spilled from his unkempt dome. He’s well-sheared, tanned, and crisp. And, surprisingly, at ease with himself. When he announces to Brydon that his T.V. show’s been cancelled, he takes it stride, hopeful for a new gig in a few months and then moving on to other topics all in stride. The impressions he trades have none of the ugly one-upmanship he displayed before, and he genuinely laughs at himself and Brydon’s Michael BublĂ© sketch. He can take a joke now. Once more he beds the photographer he hooked up with in the first film, but without the acerbic disgust of self and others. He’s become quite considerate, in fact, flying his son out to join them when he senses the kid’s unhappiness and pleasantly conversing with all. And his morbid obsession with his finitude has given way to a contemplative serenity. “Nature never fails to disappoint,” he sighs while taking in the Adriatic coast–a statement you never dreamed you’d hear from him before. He continually toasts to the pleasure of the here-and-now, and when he ruminates on death while visiting Pompeii, he does it with the acceptance of the late Hamlet. “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow / of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy,” he recites in a skull-flooded crypt. He looks at Brydon, and his warning has more punch than any strained insult he leveled in the first movie: “Where be your gibes now? your / gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, / that were wont to set the table on a roar?”

But this declaration is wrapped in affection, as is the film itself – for the men, the food, the sun-sparkled waters of the Mediterranean. And though it’s Brydon’s turn to face a mid-life crisis, Coogan’s careful to get too cocky. Earlier, the pair investigate the sight of Shelley’s drowning and compare it negatively to Fournier’s rendition of the poet’s funereal immolation. “Everything looks better in a painting,” Steve quips. The truism holds for movies, too, and you certainly salivate over Winterbottom’s sumptuous Italian wine, women, and song. But maybe we actually can taste it with awareness, he suggests--maybe we can enjoy the ride. The Trip to Italy paints a fond portrait of the limitations of middle age, one that allows its twosome the possibilities of an unfinished painting. Perhaps life can outstrip art after all. “It’s a work in progress,” Coogan tells his son. “But I’ll get there.”

– Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The DishThe Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain. 

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