Disc Jockey: ‘Il Sorpasso’ is a deceptively light road trip comedy

Criterion's release of 1962's "Il Sorpasso" brings back a comedy that was long out of American circulation. Credit: The Criterion Collection
Criterion’s release of 1962′s “Il Sorpasso” brings back a comedy that was long out of American circulation.
Credit: The Criterion Collection

‘Il Sorpasso’
The Criterion Collection

The gauntlet is thrown early in the 1962 Italian comedy “Il Sorpasso.” A brash, 40-something alpha male named Bruno (Vittorio Gassman) has just essentially bullied, if not kidnapped, Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a meek law student, to abandon his studies and hit the road. Bruno brings up “The Eclipse,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s acclaimed study of alienation in modern Italy. It put him to sleep, Bruno admits. In fact, it probably put much of “Il Sorpasso”’s many viewers to sleep.

But this isn’t mere anti-intellectualism (or anti-Antonioni-ism). At the time, and even now, comedy is not taken seriously, unless it does something formally special. Partly as a response to this, there arose a counter-movement against the likes of Antonioni, Fellini and Rossellini. “Commedia all’italiana,” practiced by Mario Monicelli (“Big Deal on Madonna Street”) and “Il Sorpasso” director Dino Risi, produced more populist yet deceptively lighthearted fare that quietly oozed craft, even subtle social commentary.

Indeed, poke at “Il Sorpasso” and it pokes back. Bruno and Roberto’s jaunt, speeding from place to place in the former’s convertible, doesn’t seem to be satire. And yet it takes Italy’s temperature, as “La Dolce Vita” did two years prior. (In fact, it was retitled in America as “The Easy Life,” as if to sound like that film’s English title, “The Sweet Life.” The actual meaning of “Il Sorpasso” is the daredevil, and very Italian, act of overtaking cars.) It comes to similar conclusions: that Italy in the 1960s is having fun now but the good times will come to a brutal end soon. (This proved creepily prophetic.)

Jean-Louis Trintignat and Vittorio Gassman hit the road in "Il Sorpasso." Credit: The Criterion Collection
Jean-Louis Trintignat and Vittorio Gassman hit the road in “Il Sorpasso.”
Credit: The Criterion Collection

It simply winds up more ambivalent about the diagnosis. This is an extrovert-vs.-introvert tale, one of the most common in comedy. (Risi would make another key example: 1974’s “Scent of a Woman,” also with Gassman, remade with Al Pacino.) But Bruno is if anything a mega-extrovert: He’s loud and dense and obnoxious and easily distracted and proud of the things he doesn’t know. He even accidentally hits on his loving daughter, shortly before making an unsuccessful pass at his ex-wife.

But he’s not a villain or particularly evil; he’s just never received, or simply ignored, that epiphany that makes you grow up. Gassman’s performance is not alternately charismatic and monstrous but both at the same time. He never lets up, is never discouraged and never gives up on Trintignant’s mostly reluctant wallflower. Ordinarily this middle-aged man-child would be the last guy at the party, but the party’s still in full, reckless swing.

In terms of pacing and energy, “Il Sorpasso” is closer to Bruno than Roberto, but it has a clear-eyed worldview that doesn’t assert itself and can even go unnoticed. Fits of profundity are woven into the film’s fabric, arising during stray bits of downtime between set pieces. After visiting one of Roberto’s childhood spots — where he finds the woman on whom he once crushed as a boy grown up and middle-aged — Roberto muses briefly on “the distorted memories of youth”: “You know why we always say [the past] was a wonderful time? We didn’t really remember what it was like.”

The same winds up happening in the film. It moves so fast and it seems like a blast. (The film itself was an actual word-of-mouth smash.) Even Roberto comes to see it as the best single stretch of his life, forgetting that he spent much of it remote and irritated, observing the fun from a distance with disdain — not unlike Antonioni did his film’s carefree revelers. It’s easy to get caught up in “Il Sorpasso,” but looking back on it, it seems even better than it did at the time.

Christophe Paou and Pierre Deladonchamps get down in "Stranger by the Lake." Credit: Strand Releasing
Christophe Paou and Pierre Deladonchamps get down in “Stranger by the Lake.”
Credit: Strand Releasing

Also out

‘Stranger by the Lake’ An old school art house head-scratcher, Alain Guiraudie’s lakeside drama hangs at a gay pickup site that’s eventually plagued by a murderer. But don’t take it too literally or you’ll miss its searing portrait of commitment-phobia at its most intense.

‘Her’ Scarlett Johansson is on a winning streak, which began with her sharp, audio-only performance as the voice of an operating system that bewitches a grumbly loner (Joaquin Phoenix).

‘Vanishing Point’ One of the great car movies (from 1971) is also one of the great existentialist movies, with a driver (Barry Newman) reduced to the only thing he does well: speeding down barren stretches of road.

‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ Have people forgotten there was an expensive remake of this 1951 Cold War sci-fi fave a few years back? Good, because the original has gone high-def.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


US military tried, but failed to rescue journalist…

The U.S. military earlier this year tried to rescue journalist James Foley and other American hostages held in Syria ,but failed to find the captives.


Fate of captured beluga whales in hands of…

A Georgia aquarium went to court on Wednesday seeking federal permission to bring 18 captured beluga whales to the United States from Russia.


After Eric Garner death, religious leaders meet to…

Interfaith leaders convened with city officials to discuss what the community can do to help dial down heightened tensions after Eric Garner's death.


'Suspicious' Hamilton Heights fire caused by power strip:…

An extension cord overload caused the deadly fire in Hamilton Heights late Monday that killed a 15-year-old girl and injured at least 12 others.


'Doctor Who' personality profile: the 4 Doctors

When the time comes for a new Doctor, there's always some anxiety over the big question: Who will he be? The series owes its longevity…


Billy Crystal to commemorate late actor Robin Williams…

  Comedian Billy Crystal will pay tribute to late actor Robin Williams at television's Primetime Emmy Awards on Aug. 25, the show's organizers said on…

Going Out

Things to do this week in NYC, Aug.…

GAMES Hudson Common Open Aug. 21, 7 p.m. Hudson Common 356 W. 58 St. Free, www.hudsoncommonnyc.com The U.S. Open begins on Monday, but most of…


Review: Sadly, Matthew Weiner's 'Are You Here' is…

"Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner tries his hand at movies with "Are You Here," a misjudged Owen Wilson-Zach Galifianakis comedy that turns into a drama.


2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL…

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL defense (DEF)


2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL…

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL quarterbacks (QB)


Shane Greene travels unlikely road to Yankees stardom

Shane Greene was throwing a bullpen session on a quiet field at Daytona Beach Community College one day when the ball started moving.


2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL…

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL tight ends (TE)


Online dating for every generation

Frank Jackson and his mother Maggie are like lots of modern families: They have dinner together regularly, keep each other updated on their lives —…


Going green could be the key to getting…

If we could just pursue the things that would actually make us happy, we could help the environment too, according to a New York researcher.…


Metabolic syndrome could have a sugar link

Scientists in St. Louis may have found another culprit in metabolic syndrome, which can lead to heart disease and type 2 diabetes.  Uric acid is…


Another way stress hurts your unborn baby

Mothers know to try staying calm during pregnancy, as stress has been linked to behavioral and developmental problems for their babies. But now, a new…