Fifty years ago (on Feb. 7, 1964, to be precise), the Beatles came to America with a sound so blissful and spangly and new that it would have seemed – still seems – counterintuitive to think how much that sound was influenced by America. The four magical mop tops seemed to relish our rock & roll even more than we did (though, of course, they gave it their own incandescent spin). Mind you, I’m not comparing Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, the two brilliantly funny quipster cynics who portray themselves going on a culinary road adventure in The Trip to Italy, to the Beatles (though the barbed cheekiness of these two goes right back to the spirit of the banter in A Hard Day’s Night). But if I can at least make an analogy between comedy and music, Coogan and Brydon, who spend a lot of the film doing their slashing impersonations of Al Pacino, Woody Allen, Robert De Niro, Christian Bale, and others, appear to be driven by a heightened fixation on the personalities of Hollywood stars that seems at once peculiar to Britain and, just possibly, even more obsessive than our own.
Brydon is a shovel-faced Welsh comedian, actor, radio personality, and impressionist, and in The Trip to Italy, even more than in The Trip (2010), the hilarious and touching road movie that became a cult comedy and inspired this Continental sequel, he doesn’t just do Al Pacino. He channels him, imbibes him, deconstructs him, crawls inside his shouting gravel head. Brydon does an awesomely authentic job of conjuring the Loud Voice Al who began to body-snatch the quieter, subtler Pacino somewhere around And Justice for All (1978). But he also uses Pacino to express a secret side of himself – an inner apeman, an unreasonableness – that the normally gentle, polite Brydon can’t express in any other way. In The Trip to Italy, he’s a comedy star going on a mouth-watering restaurant tour (with his old comrade Steve along to keep him company) so that he can file a celebrity review of it all for The Guardian. But the joke is that he’s also acting something out. Married, with a three-year-old daughter, he needs…a release, and he finds it by treating Pacino as his walking, hunching, shouting Madame Tussauds alter ego. (The other half of his personality comes out in his pinpoint hilarious Hugh Grant impersonation, a tissue pile of genteel stuttering euphemism that’s like the Jekyll to his Pacino Hyde.)
Of course, Brydon is also just fooling around, and that’s the loose, frowzy joy of the Trip films. Directed by Michael Winterbottom, they are mostly improvised, with a very small crew (The Trip to Italy, like The Trip, was originally shot as a six-part half-hour comedy series for the BBC), and the way that they’re made is that Coogan and Brydon simply drive around, from one posh eatery to the next, and whether they’re in their rented sports car, or on a tiny boat, or sitting down to eat and drink at one of the earthy-elegant restaurants, they take the piss out of each other, and also out of the actors whose voices and mannerisms they imitate with such wickedly devastating precision. (In the original Trip, their scene of dueling Michael Caines is one of the funniest sequences I have seen in 20 years.)
In The Trip to Italy, they also discuss their lives, sing along with the CD of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill that they got for the car ride, and needle each other, with a button-pushing skill that is nearly surgical, about their respective careers. If Coogan brings up the fact that he had a part in Tropic Thunder, you know that Brydon isn’t going to miss a beat before pointing out that Coogan’s character got killed off in the first ten minutes (and you’d better believe that Brydon timed it). Coogan, of course, has a devoted fan base, but his movie career has never really caught fire, and part of the luscious joke of the Trip films is that there’s an ethereal aura of failure hanging over Steve Coogan, because he knows that he hasn’t quite made it, and God, how he wants to. (If there’s a third Trip, it will have to deal with the success of Philomena, in which Coogan finally did make it…as a faintly declawed version of himself. Which Rob Brydon will no doubt point out.)
At its best, The Trip to Italy made me sputter out loud with laughter, especially in a scene where Coogan and Brydon go off on The Dark Knight Rises, cutting up on the fact that you can scarcely understand what Tom Hardy’s mouthpiece-afflicted Bane is saying, and that Christian Bale’s whispery-ominous line readings are only a shade more perceptible. These two are merciless, yet their vocal satire truly is a twisted form of love: You have to have a consuming connection to movies to be this cutting about the way that gifted actors and filmmakers can miss the mark this decisively. Yet as funny as The Trip to Italy often is, I didn’t find it as enchanting as The Trip, which had an underlying poignance – a bone-deep British view of acting as a higher form of being. The constant prattling on about Byron and Shelley gets to be a bit much this time, and while I appreciate that these films almost have to be made up on the spot, with Winterbottom providing the basic plot diagram, the next time – and I hope there is a next time (The Trip to Amsterdam? The Trip to Manhattan?) – it wouldn’t hurt if the movie had a little more of a structural design. Actually, I know exactly what they should do next: The Trip to Hollywood. It’s about time they tried out those impersonations in the belly of the beast.
* * * *
In Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange, John Lithgow (genteel, wily, with hidden corners) and Alfred Molina (open, affable, vulnerable) are touching together as aging New Yorkers who’ve been a couple for 39 years and love each other now more than they ever did. At the start of the movie, the two are getting married, and apart from the fact that they can’t catch a cab in their West Village neighborhood to get to their own wedding, it’s a day of joyful tears. But then, days later, when Molina walks into the parochial school where he’s a music teacher (Lithgow’s character, who is 71, is retired and lives on a pension), he’s on the receiving end of bad news: The bishop, who considers gay marriage an abomination, has fired him. Seemingly within minutes, the two men announce that they’re going to have to sell their co-op apartment (even though it’s a modest place where they’ve lived for 20 years), and that before they can find an appropriately priced rental, they’ll have to crash, separately, with a few of the devoted family members who surrounded them at the wedding. It’s quite a cataclysm – all touched off, of course, by the homophobia of Church policy. Yet I have to confess that my deepest thought was: Really? These two need to move, immediately, from the cherished home that they own? Don’t they have any savings? Couldn’t they borrow, say, ten grand from one of those relatives to help make the mortgage payments for a year while they figured out what to do?
Love Is Strange is a comedy of thorny family dynamics, not real estate, but the fact that Sachs basically dumps Lithgow and Molina onto their relatives’ and friends’ couches in such a slapdash, contrived manner speaks to something about his imprecision here as a filmmaker. I say that with intense disappointment, because after years of watching Sachs make compassionate, “promising” dramas (like 40 Shades of Blue) that never fully delivered the punch they were going for, I thought he took a quantum leap as a filmmaker – that he instantly became major – two years ago, when he made Keep the Lights On, a superb confessional autobiographical drama in which he told the story of his long-term relationship with a brilliant, captivating man who turned out to be an insidious drug addict. It was one of the best movies about love, and addiction, that I’d seen in several years; every moment, every nuance, felt right. But Love Is Strange, though it does have some fine scenes, is a hit-or-miss drama made in the kind of clunky and telegraphed indie style that Sachs, I thought, had outgrown.
Lithgow, ensconced in the Brooklyn apartment of his nephew (Darren E. Burrows), the nephew’s wife (Marisa Tomei), and their teenage son (Charlie Tahan), tries to melt into the woodwork, but he’s too chatty to do it, which starts driving the wife nuts. As for Molina, he moves into a neighbor’s apartment, where a party seems to be going on at every moment (a point that Sachs overstages – it’s as if the Village People lived there). For all the slipshod situations, whenever Lithgow and Molina get to do a scene together, the movie takes wing, because they convey such a bittersweet, lived-in sense of the history of their relationship. But Sachs, in Love Is Strange, has engineered a tale that (mostly) keeps these two apart, and that may be the surest sign that his instincts are off.
* * * *
Like a lot of Mad Man fanatics, I don’t just admire John Slattery as an actor; there’s something about the man himself I really like. In interviews, he seems crisp yet wide-eyed, so charmingly different from Roger Sterling (I once passed Slattery on a New York street, and he had a guitar slung across his back), and he has also proved a good director, helming several Mad Men episodes with impressive finesse. So trust me, I wanted to like his big-screen directorial debut, I really did. But God’s Pocket, adapted from a Pete Dexter novel, is a mess. It’s set in the lower depths of Philadelphia (dive bars, meat trucks, rancid flower shops), in what appears to be the 1970s, and the visual atmopshere of everyday squalor is dutifully convincing. Moment to moment, Slattery knows how to bring a scene to life. But almost everything that happens in God’s Pocket – a truck heist masterminded by a slovenly morose loser (played by – surprise! – Philip Seymour Hoffman); the killing of a psycho kid; a desperate, drunken newspaper columnist (Richard Jenkins) somehow seducing every gorgeous woman he finds – seems to be taking place in a different movie, and the result is a kind of metastasizing mishegoss. Yet I won’t write John Slattery off as a filmmaker. I’ll only recommend that next time, he makes sure, early on, that’s he’s not working with a script that’s a leaky boat.