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Film Review: The Trip

The Trip (2010; Directed by Michael Winterbottom)

It only stands to reason that Steve Coogan, perceived for so long as the great British comedic performer who has failed to break through to a larger international (especially American) audience, would sooner or later begin to construct self-reflexive meta-commentaries on this perception through his work. The Trip is just such a project, a character-centric sort-of-extension of director Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy meta-adaptation A Cock and Bull Story.

Coogan and Welsh comedian and impressionist Rob Brydon play exaggerated, egocentric versions of themselves along the lines of that earlier film, in this edited feature-film edition of the BBC Two TV series. The premise is that Coogan has planned and booked a romantic gastronomic tour of country inns and fine-dining restaurants across the North of England for himself and his girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley).

Unfortunately, Mischa flies to America to write a magazine story about Las Vegas prostitutes instead (and to get away from what is evidently a failing relationship), leaving Coogan with a full itinerary for two and only himself for company. This will not do, so he invites his friend Brydon along. The latter is pried from his affectionate wife and child with some difficulty, and with some trepidation on Coogan’s part, as their relationship seems largely grounded in laddy but borderline passive-aggressive professional one-up-manship.

Coogan and Brydon load into the former’s Range Rover and drive across fog-shrouded moors along winding country lanes (there’s a running joke about Coogan’s tedious obsession with planning the driving route and laying it out in great detail for Brydon as they set off each day). Along the way, they sample (and josh at) elegant fashionable cuisine (Brydon always seem to order the scallops), admire quaint inn architecture and natural landscapes, learn about and discuss the exploits of Lake District poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, and bust each other’s chops so consistently that they practically return home swollen and sore. The bromantic tropes may suggest mainstream comedic convention, but the balance and execution impart an energy and humour all The Trip‘s own.

Coogan is portrayed as a self-absorbed womanizer who, despite dutifully wandering the wastes (which are beautifully shot by cinematographer Ben Smithard) to find decent cell reception to call Mischa, hooks up with Eastern-European innkeepers (“improving Polish-English relations”, as Brydon puts it) and Spanish photographers he meets along the way. He’s also quite hoping to be recognized more often, but is frustrated when the cheerier Brydon, with his collection of ingratiating, quickly-offered impersonations, is noticed by the locals more than he is. Coogan copes by quibbling with the accuracy of Brydon’s takes on Michael Caine, Sean Connery, and Anthony Hopkins, all while offering his own impressions as superior alternatives. Indeed, Coogan seems so unreasonably jealous of Brydon and his abilities (or perhaps of his relative happiness) that, in one brilliantly-modulated monologue sequence in a churchyard burial ground, he faux-eulogizes him as a silly conjurer of cheap tricks and parlour games, rather than a serious artist like the great Steve Coogan himself.

The key to that scene, and to Winterbottom’s whole film (or television show that has become a film), is how Coogan pulls back from more vicious jabs and softens his blows with humour, affection, and generous openings for rebuttals and ripostes from his chum Brydon. At the core of The Trip is a knot of affection shared sometimes begrudgingly between two clever, funny men who feel as liberated in each other’s creative presence as they feel threatened by that same presence.

Much of The Trip is improvised by Coogan and Brydon, and Winterbottom (who also directed Coogan in his finest film role in 24 Hour Party People) grants them the space to pursue their comedic fancies. Their riffs are blissfully non-self-conscious, marked by repetitious in-jokes and male competition undercurrents. In other words, they feel like the eavesdropped interactions of two guys who defuse the discomfort and tension they feel around each other with their shared callings of humour and wit. In other, other words, they feel bizarrely real, for all of their staged reality. The casual, almost narrative-less structure might have admitted a rambling spirit, but Coogan and Brydon have a chemistry and commitment that keeps it light but tightly focused. They’ll apparently be going to Italy for a sequel, and we will look forward to travelling along with them again.

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Categories: Film, Reviews, Travel
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  1. May 28, 2015 at 10:23 am

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