Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Trip & I'm Still Here

The Trip

I doubt Steve Coogan will ever break out in Hollywood. The British comedian, long admired for his television creation, the hilariously narcissistic and cringe-inducing radio broadcaster Alan Partridge, has been trying to hit it big on the other side of the Atlantic for a while. I remember reading an optimistic New Yorker profile in 2007 promising success, and a quick search reveals an article from  2004 announcing that Coogan had just done away with his crooked teeth and, with the help of a trainer, developed a something resembling a set of abs in preparation for his arrival on the silver screen. That arrival was the phenomenal flop Around the World in 80 days. Since then his biggest starring role was in the largely ignored Hamlet 2.

Luckily, Coogan has Michael Winterbottom, a director as notable for his wildly eclectic output as for his ridiculous name. This is the third time Coogan has found critical acclaim working with Winterbottom, as well as the second time (after the excellently bizarre Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story) he's played a man named Steve Coogan.

The Trip is where Coogan's onscreen persona hits closest to home. There's a fine line between representation and reality, and both director and actor set out to make it as blurry as possible. Here, Coogan the character is a narcissistic and slightly ornery actor desperate to set his Hollywood career in motion and struggling to stay with his girlfriend, Mischa (Margo Stilley, who is not, however, Steve Coogan the person's girlfriend). But instead of being with her in New York, he must driving his range rover through the north of England on a gastronomical tour that he's supposed to be covering for the guardian. And since Emma dropped out of what was supposed to be their delicious romantic getaway, he's had to replace her with a new travel companion; his not very close friend, Rob Brydon, conveniently played by comedian Rob Brydon.

And that's pretty much the entire plot of The Trip.  Coogan and Brydon drive through the pastoral countryside, dig into three star tasting menus, take lighthearted and sometimes not so lighthearted digs at each other, and, at what was apparently the director's insistence, continuously impersonate other, more famous people. Everything goes; Michael Caine (great), Al Pacino (terrible), Woody Allen, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins. It didn't make it into the film, but Coogan also does a pretty great Stephen Hawking.

The Trip is a rather low-key and messy affair, neither very cinematic or well-paced, since it's essentially the condensed version of a 6 hour miniseries. But it is hilarious. Brydon is the perfect foil for the arrogant Coogan. He's content with his marriage and his career, and has a knack for annoying others and sometimes embarrassing himself. Brydon is smug, Coogan is cocky and their repartee crackles with dry wit. The humor usually comes from the pair's ability to aggravate each other and from their insistence on competition: Who does the best impressions? Who has the greatest singing range? Who can recite more Wordsworth? Who knows more about local limestone formations? But it also comes from unexpected places; in one of the film's best scenes Coogan tells Brydon how he would eulogize him. There's more than a hint of self-loathing in the way Coogan tears his friend down.

This kind of morbid humor is also indicative of a deeper seriousness that Winterbottom is aiming for. Coogan yearns for fame and validation, but we're continually reminded of how empty his life is. Escapades with various hotel staff recall his actual tabloid exposed sexploits. A scene where he refuses cocaine from one conquest with a melancholy look in his eye recalls his actual drug addled past. The beauty of the country surrounding him is supposed to allow him to connect with something real, and he has the crampons he needs to brave the outdoors, but in the end, the hills do little more than provide cell-phone reception. Even the impressions are a distancing mechanism.

Is The Trip too serious? The plinking piano music layed over key moments says yes. In some ways, all this somber introspection seems like something forced onto the story by the director and not necessarily the natural result of the always amusing and more gently confrontational exchanges between Brydon and Coogan. Does real Steve Coogan really approve of fake/real Steve Coogan being so depressed? Well, as enticing as Hamlet 2 and Hollywood success sounds, maybe gray hills and dreary British weather suit him better.


I'm Still Here

If anything, Coogan's self-deprecation seems only to have helped him. We're glad to cheer on man capable of taking on his flaws and making them funny. As hesitant as I am to defer to the tomatometer, it's important to note that The Trip has garnered nearly universal praise. Not so for, I'm Still Here, a movie in which actor Joaquin Pheonix explores his celebrity persona to much greater effect. There are many similarities between the two movies (the presence of Ben Stiller in key scenes, the same annoyingly dramatic piano music in others) but where Coogan led a mild mannered foray into his unpleasant side, Joaquin went for broke in a full blown reinvention of himself, unleashing his id not just onto the art-house screen, but, with the help of an avaricious media cycle, into public consciousness.

It might have been too much for people to handle. When I'm Still Here was premiered at the Venice Film Festival, the shock of Joaquin Pheonix's much publicized transformation was only just starting to fade from memory. Hindsight might make that amish-y beard, Letterman interview, and attempted rap career seem ridiculous, but many still thought Casey Affleck's supposed documentary on his brother-in-law's downward spiral was real, and what they saw in it was shocking and ugly. Some critics championed the movie (whether or not they believed it), but there were enough 0 star reviews to savage it. 

What's interesting about the disgusted reaction is that even when viewers were leaning towards the idea of a hoax, they were unable to separate Joaquin from his onscreen craziness.   They saw only a stunt that fed off the media's interest, and a man who must have been at least somewhat unhinged to attempt something so detrimental to his career. In that way, I'm Still Here is extraordinarily convincing. It leads you to believe that no product so depraved could have been conceived with anything less than depravity.

Now that time has allowed some distance from the film and the publicity surrounding it, however, now that the debate over whether it was a "hoax" or not has quelled, an entirely different film has emerged. I'm Still Here provides great interest as a social experiment, sure, but it's above all a darkly comedic character driven story, ludicrous fiction seamlessly turned into reality in a way that not even Borat could manage.

Joaquin starts out with a monologue. He paces back and forth overlooking the L.A skyline, panting. He's not sure whether his natural intensity has caused him to burn out, or whether critics had pegged him as intense, forcing him to become even more intense, causing him to burn out. In any case, he can't go on. He has to break free of the path that other people expect of him. At this point, you can already tell that the man is messed up, but he's at his most lucid here; hard to cipher, but not totally lost in the haze of his own mind. And even later, when Joaquin's path reveals itself to be made out of cocaine, hookers, and vomit, and Jackass-style pranks, you can see where all the self-destructiveness comes from; from that misplaced intensity, that drive that no one--especially not Joaquin himself--can seem to understand.

The character that Joaquin creates certainly does his best to become unlikable (he's perhaps a little too dumb for his own good), but even at his worst, I never saw him as unsympathetic. There was always something burning in him even when his initial over-excitement turned to confused loneliness.

The movie's turning point and early climax comes with that infamous Letterman interview. Until then Joaquin has been struggling to start off his rap career--a session where he plays his material for a very uncomfortable P Diddy is priceless--and he desperately needs some sort of acceptance. And then Letterman tears into him. There's still a bit of a shock in seeing it happen, even more so now that the footage has been given some context. We know that Joaquin is in character, but still you can't help but feel that we're sharing a devastating moment with him. The illusion he's been trying to cling on to is being stripped away in front of an audience of millions.

The film wraps up a little too tidily considering the scope of Joaquin's and Affleck's ambitious undertaking. They have a plant in the audience of Joaquin's first major rap concert ready to heckle him, stopping the concert short. It seems a little too easy a way to get out of the madness the two had created for themselves--they didn't exactly follow the performance to its logical (or rather, unpredictable) conclusion. They don't allow the public's response to Joaquin's rap heroics to factor in. And there was actually surprisingly little interaction with real people or the world outside driving the story; asides from that Letterman interview and possibly the P. Diddy sessions, much of the narrative was self-contained. It's Joaquin making snow angels with his crew, driving around D.C upset about not getting invited to any inauguration parties, or filming one of his crew members swinging his dick around (this happens on multiple occasions).

Perhaps that just furthers Casey's point that he wasn't trying to trick people en masse, to rile them up before chiding them for believing it all. He really was telling a story, showing how fame transforms and destroys, how easily celebrities' images are created and manipulated. Unfortunately, it's a story that's become all too familiar in this era; Amy Winehouse's death would be its most recent incarnation. I'm Still Here may not attempt to provide insightful commentary in itself, but it's still a valuable and hilarious look inside the crazy and tragic world of celebrity.

Too bad that some of that fictional tragedy has rubbed off on reality. Joaquin hasn't been fully absolved of his antics, and his look at celebrity foolishness has been deemed itself a foolish vanity project. When he returned to Letterman, clean shaven and eager to talk of his project, Letterman seems merely to want to make Joaquin as embarrassed about it as possible. Some people still can't quite believe that Joaquin cut off that bat-shit insane when the camera stopped rolling. "Was the idea of a hoax itself just a hoax intended to cover his disastrous misstep?" says they. If that isn't the sign of a  great performance I don't know what is.


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