Sunday, July 24, 2011

Road trip

I don’t end up seeing many of the big mainstream comedies; or instance, I haven’t been to Bridesmaids, The Hangover 2 or Horrible Bosses (I’ll probably catch up with the first eventually; I doubt I’ll ever see the others). I don’t have anything against the raw materials of such movies – at certain times I’ve certainly laughed as hard as anyone (well all right, maybe not as hard as anyone) at excess or inspired vulgarity. But I don’t share the mentality of those who talk about the regenerative power of a good laugh (for that I look at myself in the mirror – ha ha!); I’m usually more in need of the regenerative power of a good theory.

My comic intake

On that basis, I got a big kick out of The Ricky Gervais Show, which recently concluded on HBO – just Gervais and two others having a pointless series of studio-recorded conversations, illustrated with brash, throwback animation. The strain shows at times, but virtually every episode goes somewhere you haven’t been before. On a slightly different note, Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm continues to amaze me with its daring and structural dexterity; the virtuosity almost has something of the cosmic about it at times. That’s about it for my current comic intake, always excepting the mighty David Letterman, 75% or more of whose shows I still watch (with the help of recording technology). I find Letterman overwhelmingly funny, as well as being one of the best interviewers around, but I accept it’d be hard to sell an objectively-minded novice on that. At this point, watching Letterman is as much a conceptual premise as an actual entertainment. Which is exactly how he likes it!

I’m barely at all familiar then with the work of British comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, meaning the main selling point for Michael Winterbottom’s new film The Trip should have eluded me. But I was drawn to it anyway - maybe I was just looking for the current release that sounded least like the new Harry Potter release. Coogan and Brydon, at least notionally playing themselves, set off on a week-long driving trip through the Lake District, taking in a wealth of local history and a terrific-looking series of restaurants, all bank-rolled by The Observer newspaper, for whom Coogan is supposedly going to write an article on the whole thing (although we never see any hint that he’s even thinking about this, much less working on it). The two are friends of sorts, but also endlessly competitive. Coogan perceives himself as the bigger star of the two (correctly it seems, at least if measured by his relative profile in North America – he’s appeared, although without much distinction, in the likes of Night at the Museum and Tropic Thunder), and keeps letting Brydon know it, but he’s also chronically insecure about his career and his relationships. Brydon, happily married with a new baby, doesn’t seem concerned about much of anything, except perfecting impressions of the likes of Hugh Grant and Sean Connery.

My Dinner with Andre

Coogan professes disdain for this activity, but tries to outdo Brydon at it anyway, so a big chunk of the movie ends up simply watching the two as – for example - they forensically analyze the evolution of Michael Caine’s vocal style over the years. Alternative dueling weapons include demonstrating the most plausible delivery of a hackneyed Bond villain line, or the ability to cover the greatest number of octaves (in some areas, such as one-night stands with women they meet along the way, Coogan has the terrain to himself). At such moments, The Trip simply glides: it feels entirely plausible that we’re just watching the two of them hanging out, with Winterbottom’s intermediation virtually invisible.

The film’s closest ancestor may be Louis Malle’s 1981 film My Dinner with Andre, built entirely around a dinner conversation between Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. My memories of that movie were coloured by a killer line from David Thomson, who compared it unfavorably with Ivan Passer’s Cutter and Bone as a meal in which the participants don’t even eat their food, let alone each other (or words along those lines). Seeing the film again a while ago, it remained hard to regard it as much more than a comfortable indulgence, although one of their key points of discussion – whether people have grown to lack real feeling and to live in a largely robotic manner – carries additional resonance now for being articulated before the technology explosion. Gregory argues for grand actions and projects, capable of transcending or remaking this sterility. Shawn - partly at least out of necessity, lacking Gregory’s financial means and connections - argues for the simpler pleasures of his cold morning coffee and his electric blanket. Gregory pretentiously says this device kills off the real feeling of cold and constitutes another form of death. Needless to say, these disagreements don’t dictate the film’s ultimate tone, which muses on the pleasure of communion with our loved ones as providing the ultimate validation and value of experience; the dinner with Andre may finally matter less to Shawn than the fact of being able to go home and tell his girlfriend about it.

Michael Winterbottom

The Trip works its way to a broadly similar destination, contrasting Coogan’s lonely return to his expensively sterile apartment with Brydon’s return to his much homier environment, where he happily resumes doing his impressions for his wife and they agree it sucks to be separated. Maybe that information will strike some as a spoiler, but in truth it’s as predictable as, say, Harry Potter not getting killed off. This is the film’s ultimate limitation – there are hints throughout that Winterbottom hopes to unlock something more metaphysical, but he never really gets there. This is rather characteristic of his pictures – he’s worked at a furious pace across a range of genres, making some twenty movies in fifteen years, seldom screwing it up outright, but usually leaving you wishing for more. His most recent film, The Killer Inside Me, attracted minor controversy for some ultra-violent assault scenes; just as 9 Songs was notorious a while back for its hardcore sex, but none of this was too stirring once you got to see it; it’s hard for a good, industrious soul to put on the mantle of sleazebag or pornographer like you put on another jacket.

The Trip – full of little subtleties and complexities I haven’t mentioned - might be the most purely pleasurable of all his films, even if, as I mentioned, you might often forget it even had a director. This modesty of means and affect resonates nicely against the oddity of two such gifted performers continually immersing themselves into evoking the mannerisms of other people. If the film isn’t as knowingly literary and intellectually provocative as My Dinner with Andre, it’s a more satisfying meal overall. The participants plainly eat and enjoy the food, and if they don’t end up devouring each other; well, at least they made a good stab at devouring Michael Caine.

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