In 2006 I wrote about Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, the pair we follow on “The Trip”, thusly:
“Steve Coogan…is well-known in England for his portrayal of vapid talk show host Alan Partridge; in [‘Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story’], as in Jarmusch’s ‘Coffee and Cigarettes’, he slyly plays himself as a bloke who can’t quite hide his self-interest, insecurity, lack of knowledge of what he’s talking about, and general shabbiness of character…”
“Brydon plays himself as an earnest nice guy, vaguely childlike, who’s quite unable to dissemble a la Coogan. One of the film’s chief pleasures is the spot-on timing and improvisatory feel of the banter between these two good comedians as they worry over, say, whose costume shoes have higher platforms. Each enjoys commenting on the other’s illusions and pretensions.”
Their new comedy “The Trip”, in which Coogan somewhat begrudingly invites Brydon along on a week-long tour of Northern England and its restaurants, which he's reviewing for a magazine, is essentially an entire film comprised of that banter, whether on the road to the next village or sitting across from each other at a table over good food and drink. The extent to which you enjoy the film will be the extent to which you find that banter funny. I love it, myself, though I must say that by the end the film had just begun to shade for me into the point where I began to share their annoyance with each other. That's probably the point.
Having begun life as a BBC series, "The Trip" was cut to make this feature for U.S. release. It reunites the pair with “Shandy” and "24 Hour Party People" director Michael Winterbottom. I expected it to be shot like a mockumentary but it’s actually very elegantly filmed. Leaving just a sliver of horizon at the top, Winterbottom fills the frame with screen-high views of the pastures and meadows of Northern England, using a lens that puts the rolling hills and dales right on the plane of the frame. The pair visits some of the striking features of this land where Coleridge and Wordsworth trod: the limestone pavements, an ancient churchyard. The interiors of the inns are beautifully shot as well.
While they eat a lot of succulent food—scallops and lamb in particular—neither is particularly a foodie (“Tomato-y” and “soupy” is the verdict on a bowl of tomato soup).
The dynamic is very much as described above, Brydon breaking into impressions at the smallest provocation (and, really, with no provocation at all), Coogan skeptical and a bit perplexed that (1) Brydon's not embarrassed and (2) that people seems to lap his stuff up. Brydon for his part is quite incapable of embarrassment, because he' s completely free of pretense. He is happy to be middlebrow, happy to make ordinary people laugh and to be an ordinary family man living an ordinary life. (His claim to fame in England is apparently his “little man in a box” voice). He is head-over-heels in love with his wife and baby daughter. He cheerfully absorbs Coogan's put-downs, my favorite of which was his slam, which I will leave to you to discover, of Brydon after Brydon recites passages from Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”. (The setting more than once inspires him to poetic flights of fancy).
Coogan, meanwhile, holds forth on the subject of how he should by all rights be getting the parts that are instead going to Michael Sheen (e.g., Tony Blair, David Frost).
Here is a man who has thought deeply about the complex dialectic between writer and singer that makes Abba’s “The Winner Takes It All” so brilliant. His treatise on the subject is a little gem of sad hilarity.
The scene in which Coogan one-ups Brydon’s Michael Caine is already a classic: after Brydon regales Coogan with a pretty damn good Caine, Coogan takes him to school, absolutely nailing one Caine mannerism after another until you see the difference between a good ear and an uncanny one.
I also laughed hard at the scene in which they compete while driving to see who has the greater octave range.
“The Trip” is self-reflexive on a lot of levels. Winterbottom is exactly the sort of art-house auteur with whom Coogan at one point professes to only work. (Meanwhile, his secret desire to be in mainstream Hollywood movies manifests itself in in a funny dream sequence in which Ben Stiller lists all the A-list Hollywood directors who are dying to work with him.) And "The Trip" is itself the kind of movie that he tells his agent he's tired of being in.
Unexpectedly, it becomes a movie about aging and human connection. The fact that Coogan is 44 years old and not where he wants to be in his career or his life is played for laughs, but there's a lot of pathos there as well. The idea was to take his girlfriend on the trip, but she’s back in America—they’re kind of on hiatus. Coogan is sincere when he says he loves her, but they’re drifting more and more apart. He scrambles to the top of hill and dale, trying to get a signal so he can call her. He stumbles into a lot of casual sex as well. Women make themselves available to him at every turn--a hotel staffer, a magazine photographer. Drugs, too, if he chose to partake. But it doesn’t make him happy.
Apart from Larry David, rarely has a comedian crafted a public persona so shabby and pathetic, or allowed himself to be the butt of the joke for as long as Coogan has. Brydon pities him, if anything. He’d like to draw him into the world of human contact, but Coogan must always withdraw. I won’t forget the cross-cutting at the end between Brydon, cozily and happily reunited with his family, and Coogan, alone in his empty flat overlooking London. With “The Trip”, Coogan adds another funny, sad, honest chapter to an ongoing portrait of an empty, world-weary man.
-- June 30, 2011
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)