Heart of Dankness: Touring Ruins in ‘As Above, So Below’ and ‘The Trip to Italy’
If you enjoy watching folks from the U.K. take journeys of entitlement in other parts of Europe, this is your week. There are two options: One’s a risible horror film, the other’s a funny road movie. In As Above, So Below, a young symbologist/archaeologist (Perdita Weeks) corrals a troupe of French nightlifers to join her for a trek down into Parisian catacombs to hunt for some elusive object with alchemical healing properties. Her name — Scarlett Marlowe — would seem to indicate how obnoxiously intrepid she is. This is the sort of horror-movie character who has no problem wearing a light off-the-shoulder sweater for a day of crawling across bones and running for her life. And this is the kind of movie that requires her to do so while holding a camera.
Once upon a time, when someone in a horror movie turned a doorknob or drove toward a storm, you got to feel superior and shout, “Don’t go in there!” Now it’s more like, “Seriously? You’re not gonna put down that camera first?” Scarlett’s troupe of helpers includes three French partyers who totally know the catacombs (you’ve heard of parkour; they do parkave); her distrusting Aramaic-translator pal, George (Ben “Ginsberg from Mad Men” Feldman); and a guy, Benji (Edwin Hodge), whose sole purpose is to outfit everyone with helmet cams that provide what, for us, is meant to pass for cinematography. When things get intense, Benji, who’s black, also becomes an audience surrogate, screaming stuff along the lines of, “We gotta get the fuck outta here!”
So, yes, this is another found-footage horror movie (directed by John Erick Dowdle, who wrote the movie with his brother Drew). And, yes, it’s the visual equivalent of watching fruit, powder, and ice turn into a smoothie. You don’t know what’s going on because, OK, there’s chaos, but also because these actors aren’t camerapeople. Some of them are barely actors! The attractions that await — a chamber of half-alive women doing classical music, a ringing landline phone, a burning car, long-dead bodies undecayed, a lair of treasure — feel like stops on some Halloween art walk.
Eventually, some of the installations start killing off the gang, and the movie’s sense of panic makes you curious about what exactly is going on here. It has something to do with characters’ past traumas physically returning, the further down they burrow. That’s a good wrinkle, but the found-video format is too run-run-run and the sound design too overbearing to get close to any kind of the subconscious cinematic wonders of Andrei Tarkovsky, to whom the filmmakers passingly nod. The whole movie is a tribute to some other film — the heroic thrust of the Indiana Jones adventures, booby traps from The Goonies, spooked camera pivots from The Blair Witch Project, the creepy cave action of The Descent. Not a minute of As Above is as satisfying as any of those films. It’s too lazy and rigorously wedded to overdone horror trends to compete. So below, so true.
Skulls show up in The Trip to Italy, too. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon eat their way from Camogli to Rome to Capri, but make stops that loosely retrace the journeys of the Romantic poets Shelley and Byron, who spent most of their adulthood abroad and a good deal of it in Italy. They wind up walking amid stacks of bones and skulls in the catacombs of Naples.
This is a version of what they did in 2010’s The Trip, in which Coogan and Brydon dined together and attacked each other with impersonations and gassy puns. That film was slapped together from a BBC TV series of the same name, and was memorable for Coogan’s hauteur and Brydon’s breathless riffing. The new movie has a melancholy that sneaks up on you. The director is again Michael Winterbottom, and this time he seems to know that the show’s going to be turned into a film. It’s handsomer (can you go wrong with coastal Italy?), but also better structured. The randomness of the trip itself never goes away, but that’s travel. They drive south in a Mini Cooper listening to Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, sample delicately plated pastas and seafood, and douse each other with impersonations of Italian American icons — De Niro, Pacino, Brando’s Vito Corleone.
A lot of these exchanges occur in restaurants — nice ones — which Winterbottom frames so the surrounding diners are often visible. Were Coogan and Brydon ever asked to keep it down? Once, Coogan does inform the house that Brydon is, indeed, acting, but otherwise, my laughter was nervous. Does no one in the vicinity find these British tourists obnoxious? Brydon is the more boisterous of the two, Coogan his bitchy underminer. It takes more than an hour and a relentless impersonation of British talk show host Michael Parkinson to double Coogan over.
Part of your resistance to finding Brydon funny is that he’s so desperate to please. His comedy feels pathologically insecure even by normal standards. It doesn’t appear to keep him from success. You sense that Coogan has his limits. In Pompeii, the two stand over an encased, entombed victim of the Vesuvius eruption, and Brydon starts doing the statue’s voice. (It sounds like Steve Carell.) Coogan walks away. But as the camera stays and Brydon continues his conversation, you’re touched. He imagines for this man, frozen for millennia, a humanity that’s probably warmer than the stone-faced pieties heaped upon him all day long.
It’s that melancholy within each man that saves the film from disposability. Brydon beds a stranger he meets early in the trip, and it haunts him a bit. He’s a married father, but he’s taken with this woman and wants to see her again. Meanwhile, Coogan attempts to connect with his teenage son. Their solemnity is in the filmmaking, also. The moment after Coogan walks out on Brydon, the camera stays behind to survey the other human statues. Elsewhere, while the stars banter, the director often cuts to the hot work being done in the kitchens. Sure, their Tom Hardy and Christian Bale jags are great. But you’re touched by Winterbottom’s awareness that in the scheme of both centuries and a day, impersonations scarcely compare to personhood.