“Rome looks like a graveyard,” declares self-styled playboy Bruno (Vittorio Gassman) as he tools through the nearly empty city streets early in Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso, a 1962 road movie which presents his superficially “easy life” of bar hopping and vehicular daredevilry as equally alluring and hollow as the swankier dolce vita Fellini chronicled two years earlier. (Tweaking another branch of contemporaneous Italian cinema, Bruno snarks, “Alienation! That Antonioni’s a good sleep-inducing drug.”) Rebounding from a broken date on a sleepy August morning, Gassman’s restless libertine, in early middle age, stops his Lancia Aurelia convertible long enough to borrow the phone of shy milquetoast Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant), an insecure law student who will evolve from a wary virtual hostage to a giddy co-conspirator in what turns into a two-day joyride. Risi’s casting carries the film over a series of frequently mundane, broadly sketched misadventures: Gassman, a seducer in a polo shirt who moves like a dancer whether he’s swiping another driver’s parking ticket or feeling up a maternal café chef, and Trintignant, questioning his companion’s motives in voiceover while stepping gingerly and seeming to recede physically into the car’s upholstery, make comedy with their bodies instead of gags.
It’s the director’s ambition to make this small-fry setup into a bigger zuppa di pesce, however, that falls mostly falls flat. As a dual character study, the script by Risi, Ettore Scola, and Ruggero Maccari is over-determined. Just as Bruno’s offer to buy him an aperitif leads only to Roberto opening his wallet for every expense on their jaunt in and around Rome, the law student is clearly putty in his captor’s hands (Roberto is so timid he won’t call for help when a road stop’s bathroom lock breaks). As for Bruno’s air of self-entitlement, expressed through a constantly tooting horn as he swerves manically through traffic and baits everyone from cyclists to an elderly peasant hitchhiker, it masks a genuinely accurate human radar. When the pair drops in on Roberto’s relatives in the outlying country, Bruno pegs one family manservant as a “queen” and a cousin as the clearly illegitimate son of the residence’s steward. (Still, this insight isn’t sentimentalized; when they leave, after Bruno has ingratiated himself to all, he heaves a contemptuous sigh at leaving the bumpkins’ “morgue.”)
Just as Trinignant’s dork is, by the pattern of film bromance, required to assimilate some of the extrovert’s worldview, Risi gets around to turning a moralistic spotlight on Bruno to reveal what he’s running from: an estranged wife he hasn’t seen in six years, but never got around to divorcing; professional dilettantism (claims that he’s in the refrigerator trade follow a foreboding truck crash that has fridges and corpses splayed across a highway); and a teen daughter (Catherine Spaak) precocious enough to be engaged to a rich factory owner several times her age, declaring “I want to live in certainty.” That naïve mission sounds like the flipside of her father’s death-baiting recklessness, and even if such existential oppositions are buried in a soundtrack shimmying with Italian variations of “The Twist” and “Quando Quando Quando,” Il Sorpasso’s third act feels much more forced than its lightweight boys-at-play journey, never more so than in an unearned tragic finale. Early ’60s Rome comes across vividly, but the two leads can’t quite sell the heavy-handed irony as truths about masculine character, as Risi intends.