White Masculinity On The Run: The Trip to Italy
You probably missed The Trip to Italy when it was in theaters. And that's ok. You could almost say the thing was designed to feel forgettable and insignificant: two kinda famous actors — Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon — drive around Italy, improvising their roles as characters who are gently fictionalized versions of themselves. They have a pretty nice time. And that's about it.
Our heroes eat, bicker, check in at hotels, call home, court women, and stop by landmarks associated with Romantic poets and Hollywood classics. More than anything else, they do impressions of other more iconic actors. We could call it Anthony Bourdain meets Woody Allen, or maybe Seinfeld does Kerouac? At any rate, this movie is a sequel, which as Rob ("Rob") and Steve ("Steve") discuss early in the film, is rarely a selling point. What could possibly be the appeal, one might wonder, of watching actors act like themselves, a second time around?
The film is on Netflix now, and what a perfectly netflixable film it is. There is lovely scenery and witty dialogue, and if you were to split your attention between this and, say, Facebook (where you'd no doubt be engaged in improvising your own semi-fictionalized version of yourself), you wouldn't feel as though you were missing much at all. The film's brilliance, then, is that it smuggles into this seemingly ephemeral format something quite weighty, deeply human, and also very of-the-moment. It does this odd, intensely meta thing (actors, acting like actors, acting like themselves, acting like others) in a cinematic style that feels as innocent as a Rick Steves travel special. And we may miss entirely the extent to which this cleverly points back to the ways we're all always performing, in a kind of Judith Butler sense, our own ostensibly un-acted selves.
The Trip to Italy could be dismissed as a fluffy little trifle, or it could be read as an engagement with the very question of making meaning, and of making a self, in the context of a cultural landscape where the timeless and the merely trendy jostle constantly for position. The guys are ready to listen to Verdi as they drive through the countryside, but end up popping in a vintage Alanis Morissette CD. They see themselves as living in the shadow of the great literary luminaries who self-exiled to Italy. They quote Byron, visit the places the poets lived, and see Shelley's grave. They're implicitly working out what to do with what these men left them, and figuring out how they measure up. Notably, Rob can't quote a poet without also doing an impression; his Byron is also his Hugh Grant — in one breath he evokes a lofty sentiment about love and sets up a blowjob joke, all while trying to seduce a young lady.
This play of high, low, and middle-brow cultural references is endless and artful. Centered on actors in Italy who happen to be trying to make a sequel, the film is self-consciously haunted by The Godfather II. But the characters are in Italy ostensibly to write about food, so they talk also of Eat, Pray, Love and the Atkins Diet. There are Skype calls and iPads, and there are impromptu Shakespeare incantations among the skulls of Fontanelle cemetery. There's a bizarrely touching ventriloquized conversation about sandals with a corpse in a box at Pompeii. And it all feels so easy, and perhaps, in its way, it is. It gets at something about our contemporary never-quite-authentic authenticity: nearly every location is experienced unapologetically through some other reference to it — Greta Garbo stayed here, this beach looked better in the painting, these birds are like The Birds, let's take a photo of this moment for the book, and so on. The setup of the movie is so seemingly simple, the furthest thing from any sort of high-concept art film, but its endless referentiality is textbook postmodernism, and these old guys are as nimble at moving from the sincere to the smirking that they could pass as hipsters. The question keeps coming back: what are we watching when we watch this film? Actors pretending to be themselves, unable to be themselves but by invoking other actors, unable to experience a place but through a tangled web of mediated re-citations, unable to speak but in voices other than their own.
The impressions are great fun to watch, but what do they mean? The constant mimicry of other actors feels at times like its about Rob & Steve's craft, their obsession with voice and style and performance, and perhaps its also about their effort to find a place for themselves in or near their profession's pantheon. And of course the actors/characters seem to be having a lot of fun with it, too. But we're also seeing something about the sense of self these guys have constructed. Their understanding of what it means to be white men performing their white masculinity, even in moments of "being themselves" or "playing themselves,” is essentially inextricable from their channeling of the likes of De Niro, Pacino, Hoffman, Eastwood, Connery. They cannot be themselves without also being these other selves, even when no one (but us) is watching.
The film will get no awards for progressive representation when it comes to gender or race. In often predictable ways, the world these men occupy makes little room for women except as things to sleep with, or beings who nag from afar. When women do find their way to one of the dinner tables so central to the film, the ladies are obligated to make the point that Mary Shelley mattered too. This does nothing but incite a round of Frankenstein-inspired competitive impersonations by the boys. Diversity, in this context, is about distinguishing a Welsh James Bond from a Scottish James Bond from a truly English James Bond. The only sign of someone non-white is a joke about eating Mo Farah’s legs. Rob and Steve are not even sure if, in Italy, the fashionable thing would be to spend time with real Italians, or if hanging with ex-pat Brits wouldn’t be more suitable. And like many buddy flicks, it’s tricky for the film not to collapse into one big “no homo” joke.
What keeps things interesting is that this is a portrait of white men who can't quite take their privileged position as a given, and can't quite enjoy it, at least not in the way they think they should. With the constant impressions, comparisons, and playful competitions, we see that just being these guys involves a lot of work. Their every utterance is a performance fraught with the anxiety of lineage and legacy. And indeed, when Steve's 16-year-old son Joe shows up, there's a clear sense that this long patrilineal arc of white guy poets and white guy actors is mostly uninteresting and nearly unintelligible to him as its inheritor. For Rob and Steve, it's all bearable, and maybe even delightful, because it is their very real experience and because it is also an extended joke. We're free to share in it, or we can, like Joe, simply give a little smile and walk away.
In many ways, the film is warm and nuanced. It plays with some vision of a dolce vita that is beautiful, but also at times melancholic, precarious, improvised, iterative, and always oscillating between the ironic and the sincere. Our protagonists think about death and meaning and wine and balding and sex and breakfast. The guys are making sense of growing older in a world that seems sometimes to have outgrown them. They hold on to their work and their friendship as they extemporize a place for themselves (and Shelley and Morissette and Pacino, and also some exes and offspring and hotel clerks) in a cultural trajectory where once-straight lines are increasingly tangled. And they are very funny.