Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Return trip

To the extent that his eclectic career has given him any label at all, Michael Winterbottom is the guy who never repeats himself.

Until now, anyway.

The Trip to Italy, a sequel to 2011's Winterbottom-directed The Trip, seems like a particularly curious way for Winterbottom to finally bow to anything like conventional thinking.

The modest popularity of The Trip probably exceeded the even more modest popularity of most other films on Winterbottom's CV, but it also feels like one of Winterbottom's safer directing efforts. To be sure, it's no mere buddy comedy, as it delves into deeper issues of competitiveness, the male ego, aging, and fears of encroaching irrelevance. At heart, though, it's a comedy of mismatched buddies on a road trip.

I suppose The Trip is also one of the only movies Winterbottom has ever made that could even have a sequel, but I always figured that was kind of by design as well. Whether he's telling true-to-life war dramas (Welcome to Sarajevo, The Mighty Heart), science fiction romances (Code 46), historical epics (The Claim) or self-reflexive movies starring Steve Coogan (24-Hour Party People, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), Winterbottom has been steadfastly making movies that required no second chapter.

Again, until now.

But before I accuse this director of anything so hysterical as "selling out," I should note that Winterbottom likely has no control over how this film is being advertised. And The Trip to Italy's advertisements are probably the thing that concerns me most about the movie -- while also making me laugh, I shall admit. Then again, before getting involved in a sequel in the first place, one would have to know that it was going to be marketed in a certain way -- a way that runs contrary to Winterbottom eternally redefining himself.

Namely, the job of anyone selling a sequel is to remind audiences what they loved about the first movie. The trailers for The Trip to Italy follow that formula to a T.

Here are the things we see in this trailer, which I will reproduce from the memory of having seen it twice in the past month:

1) Rob Brydon doing an impersonation of, in this case, Al Pacino.

2) Steve Coogan belittling Brydon at every opportunity he gets.

3) Brydon doing his "small man trapped in a box" impersonation.

4) Coogan and Brydon sitting at various fancy-looking tables consuming yummy-looking food.

5) Coogan and Brydon riding around in a car.

And finally:

6) Coogan and Brydon dueling their Michael Caine impersonations.

Include the fact that the Pacino impersonation involves the self-aware mentioning of making a sequel, and you've even got a healthy dose of sequel irony in the trailer as well -- another common sequel trailer trick.

These moments are all callbacks to moments in the first movie that made us love that movie, for those of us who did love it. (I'd say I fall into the category of "liked it quite a bit.") They are even constructed in such a way that over the course of the trailer, they build toward what is arguably The Trip's most famous set piece, the dueling Caine impersonations.

Could this have been what Winterbottom had in mind when he decided to go back to the well, for the first time ever? Should it have been?

I think I may be making a bit of an empty argument here, because when you come right down to it, the trailer is effective, and I certainly plan on seeing the movie.

What I think I'm really grappling with is the idea of a respected creative talent letting me down on some level. I'm sure I've written plenty of pieces like this before, but the one that immediately pops to mind is my smackdown of Seth Gordon for moving into dumb comedies (Four Christmases, Horrible Bosses) after making one of my favorite documentaries of all time (The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters). If you want to read that piece, you can find it here.

Back when I got regular comments (oh, remember those days!), three commenters basically told me I was wrong to give Gordon a hard time. (Do they still think that after Identity Thief, though?) And so I may be wrong to give Winterbottom a hard time, too.

However, Winterbottom recently got a boost of additional praise from someone I know that made me put him on a slightly higher pedestal than I had before. I've always respected Winterbottom's diverse career and his prodigious output, but I had that put in perspective by someone who knows a lot more about these things than I do. I recently asked a director friend of mine, who has become a bit disenchanted with the film industry and his prospects within it, whose career he would most like to have. He was interested by the question, and didn't have to think long about the answer. He gave Winterbottom's name.

For my disenchanted friend, then, I hold Winterbottom to a higher standard, the standard of not being seduced into repeating himself or pigeonholing himself. If you want to take it to extremes, you could say that making a sequel is a good way to raise a creative white flag. I imagine this instinct is one of the main reasons David Fincher doesn't want to honor his commitment to make the next two Dragon Tattoo movies.

I guess it remains to be seen if Winterbottom slides into a state of complacency and starts churning out Trip sequels every two years. It seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened.

And if so, well ... I do enjoy listening to those guys bust out their Michael Caine.

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