The art of competitive masculinity: From the Marx Brothers to ‘The Trip to Spain’
Men, it has been noted, often do not like to discuss their feelings.
Where polite conversation might do for couples or female friends, straight men often prefer to sublimate their darker feelings — jealousy, betrayal, longing — into competition and verbal strife. For some, this might take the form of physical combat; for others, dueling Michael Caine impressions. Over the course of three wildly funny films, “The Trip,” “The Trip to Italy,” and “The Trip to Spain,” which opens here on Friday, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have toured the tonier districts of Western Europe while sampling fine cuisine, debating the finer points of literary and military history, and weaponizing their senses of humor to hold off creeping mortality, rivals to the thrones of their perceived fame, and lingering sentiment.
Part of the brilliance of 2010’s “The Trip,” directed, as its two successors are, by Michael Winterbottom, was that its comedy geekery was couched in distinctly combative tones. When Rob and Steve debate the relative virtues of their Caines, even their critiques come forth in Caine-esque tones: “It’s not quite nasal enough, the way you’re doing it.” Haughty disapproval of comedic values serves as an inspired stand-in for a more free-floating disapproval of the other’s values.
The “Trip” films position Rob and Steve as rivals and colleagues and occasional confidantes, with the forced intimacy of travel transforming acquaintances into bantering and squabbling friends.
Masculine competition has been crucial to film comedy at least since Groucho derisively asked Chico “how much would you want to run into an open manhole?” in 1930’s “Animal Crackers.” Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis: legendary comic pairings were often competitive exercises, with wised-up sophisticates and naïfs scrabbling for advantage. The Marx Brothers practically invented the style, with a brand of round-robin hostility that often pitted motormouths Groucho and Chico against the silent Harpo, or matching dingbats Chico and Harpo against the hyper-articulate Groucho. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis updated and adapted the competitive model, with Dino’s slick plans forever undermined, and ultimately redeemed, by Lewis’s childish antics.
And this competitiveness was often, at its heart, entirely ridiculous. The more heated the combat for dominance, the more ludicrous the action. In some instances, the battle was over a woman, as in Wes Anderson’s perfect “Rushmore” (1998). Two equally preposterous romantic heroes, crumbling plutocrat Herman Blume (Bill Murray) and adolescent wiseacre Max Fischer, engage in increasingly ambitious, and vicious, combat over the heart of widowed teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). Masculinity and childishness are interchangeable here, with competitive hijinks beginning small (Max releases bees in Herman’s hotel room) and growing larger (Herman crushes Max’s bicycle) and larger (Max cuts the brakes on Herman’s car). Max is preposterous, but he is also a helpful reminder of the healthy side of masculine combat: pointing your spear at an elder, you also lay out a path for a future you hope to conquer.
Where Max is overbooked and overwrought, the eternal slackers of Adam McKay’s “Step Brothers” (2008) are only too unencumbered. Neither Will Ferrell’s Brennan Huff nor John C. Reilly’s Dale Doback, rapidly approaching middle age, are ready to leave the nest, and their parents’ burgeoning romance propels them to view their late-life stepsibling as the source of all that has soured in their lives.
Before Ferrell and Reilly belatedly accept the hardships of maturity, and discussion hilariously turns to the importance of auto insurance coverage and baby aspirin, “Step Brothers” triumphs as an assault of late-onset pettiness and dissatisfaction, channeled with rigorous purity toward the stepbrother who has unseated them from their place of privilege. “Step Brothers” is, as so many comedies of its era are, a paean to juvenile misbehavior, and nothing speaks to its ethos more than the image of Reilly wrapping a headphone cord around Ferrell’s neck as he is persistently thumped on the head by the kick-drum pedal. We are witnessing a near-musical performance of hypertrophied petulance.
Rob and Steve pick up where their precursors have left off, preferring the quiet jibe and the comedian’s critique to anything more physically vigorous. While bearing much of the filmography and many of the mannerisms of the actors who play them, Rob and Steve are (presumably) not quite Brydon and Coogan. Instead, Winterbottom’s films allow them to emerge in all their petty, competitive, prickly glory. Steve is forever seeking to one-up Brydon’s assortment of impressions, from Caine in the first film to Robert De Niro in “Italy” to Mick Jagger in “Spain.” “Why are your Nazis so camp?” Steve wonders when Rob launches into another impression.
And Rob, the lesser of the two stars by a tick (“Supporting role as ever,” Steve archly notes when Rob is cast as Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote for a photo shoot in “Spain”), is perpetually trying to convince Steve of his success, to no avail. Steve is a know-it-all and braggart, with constant reference being made to his Oscar-nominated work. “We welcome ‘Philomena’ back into the conversation,” Rob enthuses after one such non sequitur in “Spain.” “It’s been a good five or six minutes.”
If “Step Brothers” is any reminder, the comedy of masculine combat is always, and unexpectedly, about aging and mortality. Men battle for supremacy in the hopes of self-preservation, but no laurels are ever enough to keep back impending death, which haunts the “Trip” trilogy.
“Everything’s exhausting at our age,” Steve acknowledges in the first film when the married Rob presses him about the lure of another party, another romance. “What will people remember of us in 200 years’ time?” Rob wonders in “Italy.” Steve ponders the question for a moment, and suggests that they’d be more likely, between the two of them, to remember him.
Saul Austerlitz can be reached at email@example.com.