David Berman said “Time is a game only children play well.” He also said “Sometimes a pony gets depressed,” but that’s an idea better mulled over a shared bottle of sizzurp and a bigass bag of Pop Rocks. He shook my hand once. Man, I love that guy.
Mr. Berman has a point about time. You’re only winning when you can’t wait to be older. You stop being a child the moment you realize you’re losing. The thing that sucks about time is it’s not like Battleship; you can’t sneak a peek at your friend’s boats or otherwise cheat while he’s taking a shit (assuming he uses the toilet to do it, or that you’re not playing in the bathroom to begin with). On the other hand, at least we all lose. It’s not the legal system, the airports or cable TV where the rich get an unfair advantage.
Losing is the theme of The Trip to Italy, a British movie (I think it was actually a short series on BBC in England) you can either see now in a snotty art house or wait and see on video. You lose nothing by waiting, except time. You’ll gain the avoidance of snobby assholes like the ones I ran into at the Landmark Chez Artiste. I swear to God, that’s the name of the uppity shithole strip mall theater I went to. More like Chez Toilettes.
I got there early and while ushers were in the theater wiping up the spooge from the previous audience’s mental jerkoffs, I sat outside and listened to some fucking boob who repeatedly tried to steer a conversation to his trip to Tuscany. The people with him didn’t give a shit, but that wasn’t going to stop him from letting them know he’d been to a different country and had a strong opinion about how cultured it made him. In the theater, I sat across from a woman who laughed loudly. Not when shit was funny, but when she wanted everyone to know she got the joke. She also gasped at every wide shot of Italy, somehow assuming we’d all want to know that she was so fucking classy that she liked old statues and beautiful coastlines. “Shut the fuck up, lady.” That’s what I should have said instead of farting super loud. Often people don’t realize my farts are commentary on society and not just because I ate peanuts and eggs for lunch. In fact, at home I eat the eggs and peanuts so my voice can be heard.
The Trip to Italy is meandering comedy starring the middle-aged and well-known-at-home British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. It’s directed by Michael Winterbottom. They’re the same three that made Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, which is a fucking fantastic movie, and The Trip, which is a pretty damn good movie. In all three movies, Coogan and Brydon play lightly-fictionalized versions of themselves, and most of the jokes come at their own expense, or at least the expense of how the public perceives them.
In The Trip and this sequel, Coogan and Brydon drive through scenic countryside to eat in fancy-ass restaurants. This time, it’s the Italian coast. They dine, see tourist sites and joke, sometimes superficially, about pop culture and their places in history. It’s that which makes the movie more than just watching two comics try to one up each other’s Michael Caine impressions.
The themes of mortality and immortality are not on the surface of the movie, but a subtext buried beneath the jokes, in slight moments when the two comics are alone, and surrounding them in Italy. These are men at a point in their life where death is becoming a very real thing and the time left to get shit done is shrinking.
I could sense in them, mostly in Coogan, the feeling we all get when we go to Family Dollar and weep softly crying when we realize the box of floss we bought will likely outlive us, unless we start taking better care of our teeth, which we always says we’ll do but then don’t until the two weeks before a dentist appointment. Coogan and Brydon walk the catacombs, surrounded by anonymous skulls. They visit a cemetery. They are surrounded by beautiful young women who are farther and farther from their grasp every day.
They retrace the steps of Brit poets Byron and Shelley, who are still remembered two centuries after their deaths. The comics wonder aloud how they’ll be remembered, even though they know they won’t be remembered at all. In comparison, their accomplishments are ephemeral. They also cross the paths taken by Hollywood legends like Bogart, Peck, Hepburn and Garbo. These are people from 70 years ago who still have hotel rooms named after them. Neither Coogan nor Brydon have been memorialized with rooms. They haven’t made any movies that won’t disappear, either.
Comics want to be remembered, and need to be loved. To reach middle age and be forced to face the reality that you’re losing at time, your best opportunities are in the rear window and you still haven’t made a mark on the world, can be pretty fucking sad. When you try to make people laugh, you also have to wonder if people care. Is my stain on the world as prominent and permanent as the ones on my mattress?
Obviously, for me it’s a big fucking yes. I’m the Filthy Critic. I’m immortal. One thousand years from now they’ll still reference my web pages to know what I thought of Valentine starring David Boreanaz. Yeah, Boreanaz is fucking immortal too. We’ll be the only two. They’ll rename Planet Hollywood to Filthy Boreanaz. Note to self: put in my will that someone has to keep paying the hosting fees for my site until the Library of Congress is ready to take it over.
Brydon is the less introspective of the two comics. His pleasures are simpler and he’s happiest doing impressions and giving audiences what they want. He’s particularly proud of his Michael Caine. What he doesn’t like is being Rob Brydon, so he is almost always playing a character. He just wants to be funny and loved.
Coogan is more complicated. He’s much more in love with the idea of being misunderstood and not appreciated for how good he thinks he is. He’s the sort of guy who would insult you for complimenting him. He gets all twisted in the idea that jokes can’t just be jokes, they can’t just make people laugh. They have to say something about the human condition. From what I’ve seen of Coogan’s work, this isn’t just a character; he frequently torpedoes his own material by trying to make it more than just comedy.
At the same time, he can’t stand not being the best at anything. He loathes clowning, but can’t resist doing it if he’s afraid someone else will get the laughs. If Brydon does his Pacino, Coogan can’t resist doing what he thinks is a better Pacino, even while he hates himself for acting the clown. He flinches when Brydon is congratulated for landing a part in a Hollywood movie and feels the need to point out that he has been there and done that.
The Trip to Italy is a movie for old people. It’s not funny as often as it should be. The dining scenes can be as tedious as those reality shows where a traveling host moans in ecstasy every God damn time he stands in some chef's kitchen and puts food in his mouth. A lot of the impressions are bad, and even when they aren’t the jokes are. But, the movie has mortality going for it. It feels genuine when it’s just two men facing the likelihood of dying without ever meaning much. Not that I have any clue what that feels like. Those of you reading this in the Year 3014 know what I’m talking about. Three Fingers.