In 2005, Michael Winterbottom made the first of three films starring the comedic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Coogan and Brydon always seem to play, we are told, some version of themselves. That first film, entitled Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, was about a film crew making a film about Tristram Shandy. Whether Winterbottom was playing with some postmodern notion of simulacrum or what, the idea of a film within a film made no sense. It was deadly dull and instantly forgettable.
The second film in the Coogan/Brydon series was called The Trip. Originally a TV sitcom, the conceit was that a newspaper would pay Coogan to make a foodie road trip and write up his restaurant experiences for the paper, and when Coogan’s girlfriend dropped out, Brydon went along instead. The film received mixed reviews. Netflix only rates it two and a half stars, i.e., between “liked it” and “didn’t like it,” but Rotten Tomatoes gave it 89% positive. Roger Ebert gave it four stars out of five and Coogan won a Best Male Comedy performance award.
There was no shortage of viewers calling it empty and tiresome, but apparently Winterbottom thought it was worth doing a third time (i.e., extend the TV series a second season). He repeats the travelling food and wine conceit, this time in one of the most gorgeous settings imaginable. It’s the yuppie notion of paradise, zipping along the breathtaking coastline of Liguria and Amalfi in a Mini Cooper and popping in and out of some of Italy’s most exclusive hotels and restaurants with a budget that takes the food and wine in stride.
For a while, the banter is quite funny, the food is appetizing, and the scenery alone is worth the price of admission. But it quickly wears thin. Some have compared the frenetic energy of Coogan and Brydon to Robin Williams – David Denby in The New Yorker, for example – but that’s way off. They’re not even close in wit and intelligence, much less human sympathy. Denby likes the hostile banter, finding the English bromance “a triumph of the lean British comic style over the maunder and the mush” of the American variety. I find these guys infantile. They don’t know anything about food, and their ignorance and immaturity are supposed to be funny. It doesn’t take long before it begins to cloy and the endlessly repeated impersonations of Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Roger Moore, Richard Burton and other famous voices aren’t actually all that good.
Winterbottom makes much of the fact that these modern-day Englishmen are tracing the steps of the Romantic poets Keats, Byron and Shelley. They visit their graves, recite their poetry and pay homage to their sensibility. Or try to. It’s like watching a girl walking around in her mommy’s high heels. They come across as clueless.
Which is not to say they are unsympathetic. Grasping at life and aware of how swiftly it seems to be getting away from them, their reflections on aging and dying should resonate with anybody of a certain age who has the courage not to look away from such thoughts, even if done with clumsy humor. The juxtaposition of the Romantic notions of beauty and death are the heart of this film, and for me the choice of the last of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs to accompany the scenes of sailing on the Mediterranean, was perfection.
That last song, Im Abendrot (At Sunset), is a poem by Germany’s Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff, a contemporary of Byron, Keats and Shelley. Eichendorff writes of embracing death with calm and quiet acceptance. Strauss does with music what Eichendorff does with words, so the meaning will very likely come across to English viewers without their awareness, a powerful example of the importance of musical accompaniment in film.
The problem is Winterbottom thinks if a little is good, a lot has to be better. He allows the impersonations to go on far too long. And then he pushes the Strauss through seemingly endless repetitions. Takes a heart-stopping moment of beauty to the eyes and ears and hits you with it again and again.
Go see the film for the scenery and the moment when you first see the sailboat move against the background of this exquisite Strauss piece of music.
Then forget the film, and add the Renée Fleming version of Im Abendrot to your repertoire, if it isn’t already there. Here she is, at Carnegie Hall. With English subtitles.