Three films this week from three different countries deal with issues of travel, dislocation and navigating new terrain. All three are watchable and well crafted, but hampered by a sense of half measures, of not completely arriving where they need to go.
The most literal travel movie is The Trip to Italy, follow-up to Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s The Trip (2010), a faux-documentary tour through the landscape and restaurants of northern England. (That these Brit comedians admit they don’t know much about food or wine seems almost a point of pride.) Here, heading to Italy, they’re again scripted and directed by that chameleon Michael Winterbottom, whose elastic range includes documentaries and adaptations of novels by Thomas Hardy, pulp writer Jim Thompson and Laurence Sterne (his Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story brought Brydon and Coogan together onscreen in 2005).
Taking a week away from his ex-wife and teen son (Coogan), and his wife and baby daughter (Brydon), the two tour some of Italy’s more spectacular regions, including Naples and the Amalfi Coast. Presumably writing up their experiences for The Observer, they bicker over their driving skills as Alanis Morrisette bleats from the CD player and stop regularly for steaming antipasti and piatti. Mainly, they try to verbally one-up each other with jokes, put-downs and celebrity impressions.
It’s like a silly travelogue version of My Dinner with Andre, minus any metaphysical conversation, or like going sightseeing with some witty friends who speckle their conversation with movie references. The drawback is, we don’t get to taste the delicious-looking food — or even learn the names of the pasta and game hens the comedians scarf down in those glorious coastal restaurants. Foodies coming to Italy in search of gastro-porn will feel shortchanged.
I’ve read that Coogan and Brydon, while crossing each others’ paths professionally for years, are nothing like pals in real life. It’s no surprise. Their pairing is the contrivance of BBC producers who created the original Trip and this sequel, both TV series that were edited down and rereleased as features. The men are cordial to each other. But there’s a testosteronal testiness and a “top this” drive behind their dueling impressions. Their extended takedown of the mumble-mouthed dialogue from Christian Bale and Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises is a bit of snarky perfection. But some of these riffs are variable, and go on too long as if in the interest of equal time for the actors. When the characters “Steve Coogan” and “Rob Brydon” each gets to bed a young, attractive woman, it feels less like wish fulfillment than an ego-driven tit-for-tat negotiated by their respective agents.
In his script for Italy, Winterbottom makes intentional but half-hearted forays into bittersweet territory. The movie touches on infidelity, the bruised vanity of middle-aged men, and mortality itself. (A detour to the catacombs in Naples and the ruins of Pompeii are an acknowledged homage to Roberto Rossellini’s wonderful 1954 film Voyage to Italy.) Winterbottom’s stars, though, refuse to take the melancholy bait. They’d rather glug wine and try to land the best De Niro routine.
Celebrity and roleplaying are themes that also turn up in the music-biz oddity Frank, loosely inspired by the late musician Chris Sievey’s stage creation, Frank Sidebottom. Just like that namesake, the lead character in director Lenny Abrahamson’s comedy-drama wears a giant papier-mâché head sporting a big-eyed and anxious cartoon face. In an interesting variation of actors who gain attention (and awards) by starving or fattening themselves, or playing the mentally or physically challenged, the actor disappearing inside his character here (literally) is the brilliant Michael Fassbender.
A wannabe songwriter, young Dubliner Jon (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan’s son) stumbles into the quirky circle of the indy band Soronprfbs (that’s not a typo) when he witnesses their keyboardist trying to drown himself in the frigid ocean. The player’s bandmates watch dispassionately from the beach: uber-bitch Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who specializes in the theremin and chain smoking, and Baraque and Nana (François Civil, Carla Azar), who mutter insults in subtitled French. Tapped to be replacement keyboardist by the band’s manager Don (Scoot McNairy), who has a sexual fetish for mannequins, Jon doesn’t meet the incognito Frank until he lands onstage that night, learning the band’s songs on the fly.
He also learns that Frank, who has a vague history in mental institutions, never removes the big globe atop his shoulders, even when he sleeps and showers. Grudgingly allowed into Soronprfbs’s inner circle only because Frank muttered something about his bringing “something cherishable” with him, Jon decamps with the band to the deep Irish countryside, where they hunker down in a cabin to record their first album.
Director Abrahamson brings a simultaneously blunt and light touch to the depiction of the twee madness that comes from artists trying to live communally in isolation. The images often include dry sight gags and onscreen Twitter updates as Jon naively chronicles his borrowed status as a hipster. It doesn’t add up to much but it’s quirkily pleasant. Then, when the scene shifts to the United States and the South by Southwest festival, the movie unravels.
Even with his face mainly hidden, Fassbender brings immense, goofy charisma to the damaged Frank. When he and the band jam, they sound like a mix of early B-52s, Arcade Fire and the Doors — especially when Frank starts to drone incantations like Jim Morrison in full Lizard King mode. Everyone is working enthusiastically here, but the joke is finite. Case in point: the estimable Gyllenhaal really has no way to deepen or develop Clara, a smoldering ash tray of indy-cred attitude. In the end, Frank cops out with the old, lame implication that artistic creation is a symptom or byproduct of mental instability, that artists are special, wounded outsiders who must form their own families as protection against the Big Blah World.
Moving to Japan, A Letter to Momo is a lovely but overlong and second-hand-seeming animated children’s film about coming to terms with grief. Young Momo is a girl who moves with her mother from Tokyo to a beautiful but quaint island to live with relatives. The change of setting is already challenging, but Momo is dealing with more than that: her dad died suddenly, in an accident at sea. This occurred right after a father-daughter tiff.
Momo’s guilt and yearning are exacerbated by the discovery of a letter in her father’s hand: Dear Momo, it starts. It was left unfinished. One day, things get weird. Momo starts hearing odd noises and seeing three supernatural companions — one a giant, one a babylike waif with his tongue hanging toward the floor, and the third a strange, gray-green, reptilian-human hybrid. She comes to realize that they’re guardians sent from the High world to watch over Momo and her mum in this transitional period following the father’s death.
The setup is pure After School Special jammed against fantasy. The juxtaposition is reflected in visual contrasts: the beautiful, realistic, hand-drawn animation celebrating the sea, land and sky of Japan, interrupted by these comical, otherworldly visitors. At its best, the film recalls the fantastic denizens of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and My Friend Tororo — but it has none of Miyazaki’s smiling, warm, funny-spooky madness. The sweetly moving resolution is nice, but can’t quite justify a full two-hour running time.
The Trip to Italy. With Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon. Written and directed by Michael Winterbottom. 108 minutes. Unrated. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
Frank. With Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Rated R. 95 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
A Letter to Momo. An animated film directed by Hiroyuki Okiura. In Japanese with subtitles. Unrated. 120 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.