For most people, the middle of life isn’t so much marked by crisis as by a general, if heightened, anxiety. As your body gradually succumbs to entropy and gravity, you realize that history has taken place, and you have barely participated. You weren’t Madonna, you never won Wimbledon, you didn’t stop global warming.
And yet you carry on. You may no longer surprise yourself, but you make the best of the ragtag set of memories, skills and achievements you have. You live your life.
Louis CK repeatedly addresses these issues in his eponymous show. His awareness of his own mortality — expressed mainly through mordant obscenity — is offset by his expressed and demonstrated practice of being nice to others and his sustained belief in his daughters. But his superbly grotesque humour only highlights the desperate, lingering certainty that he’s convinced it’s not enough.
Also addressing the melancholia of white male middle age, albeit in a spectacularly privileged first world way, is Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip series, the second feature length version of which was released in North America on August 15.
The conceit of the series is that Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon — both A-list comedians in Britain, though barely known in America — are writing a series of vignettes based around restaurant reviews for The Observer newspaper, otherwise known as the Sunday edition of The Guardian. The first trip was to the Lake District, and it occasioned both a six-part television show and a feature film. It was a delightful production and a surprise hit in both formats, which prompted a sequel — again in both formats.
But Italy is a trip too far.
You can never make a sequel, says Coogan. “It’s like second album syndrome,” “everyone has this amazing expressive first album where they put everything into it and the second album’s a bit of a damp squib.” And, though he’s wrong (“Godfather 2” as Brydon points out,) he’s right.
The insouciant charm of the first Trip came, like the excellence of the food it displayed, from the balance of its ingredients. A slice of buddy movie, a chunk of travel documentary and a dash of friendly-but-edgy competition between two comedians (“were you running on the beach with De Niro or was he running away from you?”)
As with radio cricket commentaries, news quizzes and recreational fishing, the ostensible reason for conversation is secondary to the conversation itself. Whether for entertainment, engagement or pathos, the flow of a well-framed conversation is a delight to join. The frame works for the Lake District and even, with its mild plot inversions, for Italy, over its six television episodes. But in the film version, the Brydon-Coogan agon is badly treated. Its dialogue is out of context, and the plot is unconvincing and truncated.
For Coogan’s character, his teenage son is a living reminder of his age and previous mistakes. Brydon’s infant child, and loving but distant wife, are external reminders to his lightly fictionalized character of his own status in life — his career is priming him for the next big thing, but his family obliges him to stay home. The siren song comes from Hollywood. Coogan’s young LA girlfriend and philandering in the first Trip resonates with his persona. The plot twist for this second Trip is less convincing.
But, despite its deep flaws, the Trip shows how we are inexorably trapped in our cultural context. For Brydon and Coogan their allusions and impressions are defined by their generation. They are indelibly British, and nearing 50. Impersonations of Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Jones, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro are fun for a while and, like an uncle who repeats his jokes, it gets tedious quickly. Though the imagined conversations on the Batman set get us amusingly from Michael Caine to Tom Hardy and Christian Bale, the foregrounding of the contemporary-ish references feels like the film is pandering to an American audience for whom a [Ronnie Corbett impression] just won’t impress.
Hey kids! Who are the movie stars that you like?!
And, although the film doesn’t work, it shows how we’re trapped by the personas we cultivate. Celebrity characters are just an extreme case of a universal phenomenon. Case in point: the affability of Brydon. “I am affable, but my persona is even more affable than I really am.” Brydon bemoans his niceness and claims to be looking forward to Italy because it’s a chance to let his hair down. Coogan is looking forward to it because he too can play against character, retreat from torturous ambition and come slowly back home to Europe from LA. But everything about their behaviour mitigates against the plot they are required to follow. Even Winterbottom as director can’t release them from their characters.
In the end it’s Alanis Morissette who is the film’s big winner. Her lyrics bring to life a series of personas in the songs they sing while driving through Italy. She evokes a moment in time without being stuck in that time. In another nod to his generation, Brydon tries and fails to plug his iPod into the car and he pulls out his wife’s Jagged Little Pill CD. (Perhaps there’s a good omen for the crew of the Trip in that this was Morissette’s third album.) Brydon’s wife, he tells us, was in her twenties when the 1995 album came out, rather than in her thirties, like the two travelers. Morissette is familiar, but from another generation, which allows the two some critical distance. Initially dismissed, Morissette is discussed, then played and appreciated. She is, they allow, talented (much more so than Avril Lavigne, the current Alanis by their reckoning) — not least in her portrayal of a slightly fictionalized versions of herself in her songs, as a volatile young woman.
Volatility in young women, Coogan decides, is attractive, but after a while you just want a partner to clean the dishes. Likewise, Brydon notes, moodiness in young men can be sultry, but it just looks grumpy in old men. That’s why it takes special talent to convey the surprise, shift and reaffirmation of life that takes place in a successful middle age, without excessive self-indulgence. Given the time to unfold in the series, it’s a second adolescence, played not for drama or chortles, but for wry laughs and insight.
Gradually, we temper our desires. Our brief flirtations with the gene pool done, we battle with the psychological aftermath of the mating season. We question the connections we have made, the accomplishments we have managed, the milestones we have reached. We question, yes, but we savour those same things. In The Trip to Italy, Brydon and Coogan question, self-congratulate and savour. But, sadly, 90 minutes in Italy is no country for old men.
Screenshot courtesy of IFC Films. All rights reserved.