DIRECTED BY MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM
STARRING: STEVE COOGAN, ROB BRYDON, MARGO STILLEY, CLAIRE KEELAN, REBECCA JOHNSON, KERRY SHALE and BEN STILLER
An actor takes up a ‘restaurant experience’ along the North of England, having been prescribed it by his girlfriend who had insisted on taking time off. He picks a substitute for the trip for two, a former co-star and a long-time friend who is of smaller stature than he is, physically and socially, something that he likes to point out to both the man himself and everyone else as well. The result is not the usual political or social satire that is characteristic of British television and Cinema, but a rather moving experience of under-dramatization and down-to-earth renditions of slightly exaggerated versions of the actors themselves and the chemistry they supposedly share, which comes out to be as edgy as it’s touching, as compulsive as it’s natural; as ‘directed’ as it’s not.
Imagine Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne hitting the road that Miles and Jack take to shop for potential locations with extroverted conversations filled to the brim with debates and disagreements on how ‘Sideways’ is supposed to take shape. Except it’s not wine-tasting here but a food-spree.
Michael Winterbottom is aging. How wonderful is it to watch a filmmaker step out of groove of mainstream films or even art-house cinema, in this case, and shoot a video of himself watching sunsets and fishing for trout! It’d be like Kurosawa himself enacting the role of the old man in the ‘Village of water-wheels’ section of his ‘Dreams’, prodding the youngsters with his walking stick and telling them their ‘growth’ is nothing but catastrophic change and there’s nothing to pride upon. Winterbottom, who was not quite successful in capturing critical eyes with his eyebrow-raising ‘9 Songs’, comes up with a sort of champion concept that’s sure to find its way to the top. If in the former he tried to showcase his poetic views on a purely-sexual relationship, in this he picks his actors whose lifestyles match that of the ones he conceived and lets them be themselves – it's a graduation from passionate sex-tape to a travelogue on an inward journey. And he captures it with such enigmatic direction that comes out as characteristic of his stature and yet showing potential for a whole lot more. It's a smart revelation - it's fun!
Needless to say, this conception could cause enough controversy as it is – Steve Coogan smokes marijuana on screen, women enter and leave his room, he is taunted by the apparent underdog in Rob Brydon for his lifestyle, someone who he ruthlessly undermines and not without reason. It’s a matchup between the successful and the happy, the fighter and the recluse; neither wants to admit defeat, they just shake hands after ten rounds of frontal bashes and veiled jabs – the points system simply doesn’t work in this boxing ring of ‘life’. In the end, the sidekick reunites with family, the big fish gets back to his shallow waters in a search for depth – he’s like the Tramp’s millionaire friend in ‘City Lights’ with a drunken reality than vice-versa. We’re reminded that it is still cinema, except with deliberate underplay of drama by sheer virtue of entropy in roles and the absence of script.
The film and its director depend entirely on the actors’ verbosity, wit and presence of mind with a premise that serves no purpose but to keep them coherent to it, with a fair bit of help from some smart editing. It also hinges on the viewer’s ability to stomach the initiative and to accept it for what it is, in all its wryness, conflict of Egos and most of all, its underlying human spirit. A cross between ‘charming’ and ‘raw’, it shows the eagerness of ‘Before Sunrise’ at times, but with better performances and a veteran cast, an age where the romance is with words and profession, and with life itself. I loved it.