Playing a comedy genius is surely 10 times harder than playing another category of intellectual brilliance. If you’re cast as Albert Einstein, you put on a fright wig and spout a few equations — everybody thinks you’re brilliant. Play a famous singer, and they can always dub the voice. In the current At Eternity’s Gate, Willem Dafoe is Vincent Van Gogh: a terrific performance (that just received a Best Actor Oscar nomination), one for which the dedicated actor learned how to paint. But he doesn’t have to convince us he painted the completed canvases — Van Gogh provided the genius we see hanging on the walls around the actor.
But comedy? Comedy is hard. To be convincingly touched by comic genius is an extremely difficult thing to fake—it’s the difference between acting funny and being funny.
Forty years ago the Best Song Oscar took a catastrophic turn—“You Light Up My Life” was the 1977 victor—and the category has never really been the same. Tepid pop songs and the occasional Disney original tend to scoop up the award, albeit with notable exceptions. But before that year, the list of Oscar Best Songs is littered with classics, none more haunting than 1968’s “The Windmills of Your Mind.” With its mournful melody and existentially despairing lyrics, the song is an inducement to sit in a hole and cover yourself with nice cold earth.
So there’s something perfect about the fact that two of Britain’s top comedic talents adopt “Windmills” as their traveling theme song in The Trip to Spain. The film’s predecessors, The Trip and The Trip to Italy, have neatly balanced big laughs with an unexpected current of melancholy.
I’m not sure what the competition is, but I will declare that The Trip to Italy contains the funniest scene ever set at the site of the Pompeii volcanic eruption. Pompeii— not generally associated with comedy— is one stop on the itinerary for Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, the British comedians hitting the road again after 2010’s The Trip. In that film, the two men played “Steve Coogan” and “Rob Brydon,” exaggerated versions of themselves; their journey took them into the north of England, where Coogan was supposed to file a newspaper story about the great restaurants they visited.
This time, Brydon invites Coogan on a similar voyage to Italy. Piling into a proper British Mini Cooper (and lacking musical accompaniment save for a single Alanis Morissette CD), they drive around scenic spots, eat good food and indulge in some extended one-upmanship.
Between the showbiz parodies of SCTV and the anchorman toolishness of Ron Burgundy, there is a missing link of media satire—missing for Americans who don’t frequent British TV, that is. This step on the evolutionary scale goes by the name Alan Partridge, a broadcast personality with a remarkably unctuous, maladroit style. As embodied in Steve Coogan’s reptilian performance, Alan combines an unshakable and unwarranted vanity with a staggering level of self-interest. He’s a man who’d gladly throw elbows in the direction of women and children who happened to stray into his path to the lifeboats.
Hatched over 20 years ago as a radio character, Alan’s had his shot as a national TV host (which, among other mortifications, resulted in his killing a talk-show guest). At the present stage of his well-traveled career, he’s a DJ at a small-time radio station in Norwich.
A heartrending true story won’t get you everywhere in movies, but it can really help. And Philomena, based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by journalist and onetime UK government spokesman Martin Sixsmith, has a devastating tale to tell.
The film begins with Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, late of The Trip), a brittle Oxbridge type, newly out of a job and lowering himself to write a human-interest story. That’s how he meets Philomena (Judi Dench), an Irish lady with the kinds of questions that perhaps only a reporter could answer. As a teenager in the 1950s, Philomena got pregnant, was sent to a Catholic convent to hide her sin, and gave birth there. She remained at the convent as unpaid labor, and her little boy was taken at age 3, never to be seen or heard from again.
The most famous children to spring from the pen of Henry James are the brother and sister from The Turn of the Screw, that celebrated and oft-filmed ghost story. The young heroine of James’ What Maisie Knew is about to receive her most prominent film exposure, albeit in a setting the author could not have imagined. Directing team Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End) place the 1897 novel smack in the 21st-century urban jungle. Here, the ghosts in 6-year-old Maisie’s life are her parents: Julianne Moore plays the mother, an irresponsible singer trying to revive her career; Steve Coogan plays the father, a sarcastic art dealer.
They’re splitting up, and Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the club with which they can hammer each other. The fact that Maisie’s nanny (Joanna Vanderham) has moved in with Dad gives Mom an excuse to retaliate with an abrupt marriage to a genial bartender (Alexander Skarsgård of True Blood) in her bohemian circle. The audience is quick to spot how these younger stepparents behave more lovingly toward the kid than her own flesh and blood does.
I first “discovered” Steve Coogan through his film roles, first in The Wind in the Willows(aka Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, directed by and starring Monty Python’s Terry Jones) and then taking the lead in Michael Winterbottom’s24 Hour Party People. It was only later that I finally saw the creation that made him famous in Britain: Alan Partridge, the unctuous, self-absorbed wannabe TV personality flailing in the brilliant parody of a talk-show train wreck Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge. (The title refers to the Abba song â€“ but of course â€“ and is pedantically worked into his every guest introduction. Ah-ha!). The series was one of the many he has created, written and starred in for the BBC but only recently finding their way to the U.S., thanks to BBC America and BBC DVD releases. (His latest show, Saxondale, is slated to run on BBC America in late 2008.)
I had the opportunity to interview Coogan when he came through Seattle to promote Hamlet 2 (opening August 22) for a small “A Moment With” piece for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a “What’s In Your DVD Player?” feature for MSN Entertainment. I wound up with a generous 45 minutes with Coogan, a man very serious when it comes to the business of comedy. That meant that, after carving out those little slices of interview, I still had more than half an hour of enlightening conversation with Coogan about Hamlet 2, his work with Michael Winterbottom and the business of creating shows for British TV. Here it is.
You made two films with Michael Winterbottom, 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy.There had to be a lot of challenges on those two films, where there were so many levels of engagement with the character, and then stepping back and commenting on the portrayals.
With Michael Winterbottom, in those films, there’s a very simple thing I do that I don’t do in other films and other work I do. In other films I do, especially comic films, there’s a lot of control and craft involved in what I’m doing, whereas in those movies with Michael, I trust him enough to, if you like, let go of the controls and see what happens. And I’m never quite sure what I’m doing and that’s quite liberating because I can trust him. So I just sort of forget about almost everything and go with whichever way the wind blows and whichever way he pushes me and just dive in and don’t think about it too much. It’s just an organic, instinctive thing, there’s not much of an intellectual process going on for me in those movies. When I’m talking to the camera, I’m just talking to someone about what’s happening to me. I don’t over think it, I trust him. It’s a very different way of working.
In addition, you write and produce so many of your own projects for television. Do the Winterbottom projects give you a chance to stretch yourself in other ways?
It does. It allows me to because I don’t have the responsibility for what I’m doing, which is quite liberating, as long as you trust the person you’re working with and trusting them to be responsible. It enables me to do things I wouldn’t normally do because it’s a way not, even though I’m proud of working with Michael, it’s not my voice, it’s not my vision, it’s his and I’m just there to facilitate that and to help render that, which is nice, whereas when I’m doing my own stuff it is my point of view, it’s from me.