27 August 2009

Profiles: Steve Coogan and the Optimistic Failure

Welcome to the first of what could be many such Profiles of Film, Television, Radio, and Street Corner Performers. Today, using the one-year anniversary of the wide release of "Hamlet 2" (2008) as an excuse, I will be examining British actor Steve Coogan, five roles in particular that all exhibit a certain trait, which I call the hard-working, bright-eyed Optimistic Failure.

Being the blissfully ignorant American Dog that I am, I was introduced to Coogan as "that-small-dude-who-wasn't-Owen Wilson" from "Night at the Museum" (2006), but since then I've tried to catch up and he's become one of my favourite actors. What strikes me most is his ability to be completely unflappable and confident amidst shear failure. In every role I'll describe here he portrays a member of the entertainment industry in some aspect, and thus he is able to parody the image of celebrity, or the image someone of his stature "should" have. Let's go through this chronologically:

#1. Alan Partridge

Appears in: 50-60 BBC shows, including "The Day Today" (1994), "Knowing Me, Knowing You...with Alan Partridge" (1994), "I'm Alan Partridge" (1997 and 2002)
Fails at: Sportscaster, Chat Show Host, Radio Host
Alan Partridge is a great creation that I admittedly have only ever seen on YouTube. He is bizarrely extremely awful at every profession he tries, failing at describing both sports and music accurately in any way while professionally talking about them. However, he's so unflinchingly optimistic about his situation and his career, even when his shows take an abysmal turn. A turn as bad as say, Partridge accidentally shooting and killing one of his guests mid-air.

Look at him trying to keep his show going immediately after he kills the guest, then is fired by his boss. He has such a commitment to his craft, but he is so insanely bad at it. He displays such unwavering professionalism getting in his last plugs amidst a pending police investigation. It seems to be but a foreshadow of Coogan's career.

#2. Tony Wilson

Appears in: "24 Hour Party People" (2002)
Fails at: News Reporter, then Music Producer
Now, this is a semi-fictionalized account of Tony Wilson's life in the 1970s-80s Manchester music scene, but it becomes definitively Cooganized.

The opening hang-gliding scene, somewhat ironically, does serve to symbolize his character. He has a consistent determinism to succeed in a new venture and when he blatantly fails, Wilson remains unflustered, commenting instead
"You're going to be seeing a lot more of that sort of thing in the film, although that actually did happen, obviously it's symbolic, it works on both levels. I don't want to tell you too much, I don't want to spoil the film, uh, but I'll just say: Icarus. Kay? If you know what I mean, great, if you don't, it doesn't matter but you should probably read more."
There's a lot to this quote here. Wilson breaks the fourth wall and explains the symbolism of his own first scene, attempts intertextuality with some Greek myth and then instantly becomes apathetic towards the ignorance that perceives lies within his own audience. Both the hang-gliding act and the lines of the quote itself involve someone reaching for the sun, coming up to high and then being thrown down in dirt and shame. Such is Icarus, Tony Wilson throughout the rest of the movie, and in many ways, the metanarrative of Coogan's characters. There's a bit more to this film, but let's move on:

#3. Tristram Shandy (Steve Coogan)

Appears in: "A Cock and Bull Story" (2005)
Fails at: Himself
Here's an interesting turn, wherein Coogan played a semi-fictionalized version of Tony Wilson in "24 Hour Party People," he now goes for another layer in playing a semi-fictionalized version of himself playing Tristram Shandy in a fictional adaptation of "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" (1759). In thus, Steve Coogan as an actor is an arrogant, jealous, and in general a lazy and womanizing, if not well-intentioned human being. There is one scene in particular I will point out, that I think is one of the funniest I've seen in the past five years of cinema:

Check out the layers here: Coogan the actual human has to act out a scene faking what it might feel like having hot chestnuts down his pants, and then acts out much more humourously actually having hot chestnuts in his pants. While this scene is intact in "A Cock and Bull Story," it is rejected from the fictional in-movie "Tristram Shandy." Also of note is how much funnier the "A Cock and Bull Story" chestnut pants reaction is to how fake Coogan planned to act out in "Tristram Shandy." The way the other characters in-world see this hilarious scene as not funny or useful reminds me for a second of how much I laughed at the humour coach "Borat" (2006) saying what Sacha Baron Cohen said wouldn't be funny. This may of course be because in-world Coogan really isn't that funny, but real Coogan, through his character's incompetence at an attempted a bit of method acting becomes hysterical! If you were able to follow any of this actually, awesome, explain it to me later.

#4. Damien Cockburn

Appears in: "Tropic Thunder" (2008)
Fails at: Movie Director
Building more on its own metatextuality, Coogan's role in Tropic Thunder is essentially minimal, but excellent expresses his failure at the job. He is not entirely optimistic, at least until he gets some spicy ideas from fake vet John "Four-Leaf" Tayback (Nick Nolte). His ego is clearly out of control, as he says, concerning his radio amidst the jungle dangers,
"This goes to the chopper, and the chopper only, the chopper is God, and I am Jesus Christ; his son."
Cockburn tries desperately hard, but ultimately he fails supremely in his vision, although the finished "Tropic Blunder: The True Story Behind the Making of the Most Expensive Fake True War Story Ever," garners eight Oscars, $400 million and saves Tugg Speedman's career. Did Cockburn get partial directing credit for this? Who knows. I couldn't find a vid of Coogan in character, but this interview highlights some of the acting irony that mirrors life that Coogan seemed to build on following "A Cock and Bull Story:"

#5. Dana Marschz

Appears in: "Hamlet 2"
Fails at: Tucson High School Drama Teacher
This is perhaps Coogan's most epic failure yet. Marschz is virulently inept at his job and not on par with his personal dreams (liken to Ronnie Barnhardt [Seth Rogen] in "Observe and Report" [2009] anyone? eh? eh? meh.). His ego is massive, believing his plays and scriptwriting to be pristine and brilliant, when they fail quite massively, his biggest enemy and critic being high school paper columnist Noah Sapperstein (Shea Pepe). Marschz is delusional, he practically even fails at pronouncing his own name.

Clearly, Marschz has no grasp of metaphors and his horrible writing is on display. What his scripts lack, however, he makes up for in drive, enthusiasm, and gung ho-manship. Eventually, he actually does find some success, moving out of Hell's Asshole Tucson and putting the play "Hamlet 2" on Broadway. Nevertheless, his incompetence as a mentor, teacher and writer are on full display throughout the entire film while his unfaltering ego and positivity keep him going.

So that's that. As you can see, man of Coogan's roles embody the spectacular drive of the unrelenting failure, most often in the realm of media and entertainment, spanning the mental disembowelment of newscasters, movies, radio, television and theater. His movies also commonly have rich layers of intertextuality and meta-recognition, which is simply a great way to beef up stupid jokes and irony. To this day, though, Coogan hasn't had any real great American mainstream success, but like George Costanza, if he had great success, his characters wouldn't be who they are. Maybe.

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