The Trip ***
Directed by: Michael Winterbottom.
Starring: Steve Coogan (Steve), Rob Brydon (Rob), Claire Keelan (Emma), Margo Stilley (Mischa), Rebecca Johnson (Sally), Dolya Gavanski (Magda).
You’ll notice that The Trip has no credited writers, and that is because the film is largely improvised. Michael Winterbottom got Steven Coogan and Rob Brydon back together, following their comic triumph of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and essentially just let the two of them loose. They are stuck together for a weeklong trip through Northern England, going from one fancy restaurant to another in order to review it for The Observer. Coogan was supposed to go with his girlfriend, but she backed out at the last minute, and after phoning around, the only person he could get to come along was Brydon, who he has a love-hate relationship with. The two playoff of each other brilliantly, but they are also competitors. And while Brydon seems completely comfortable being “just a comedian”, Coogan dreams of bigger things. He wants the Coens to build a movie around him. But that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. So now, he’s stuck in a car with Brydon, fighting with his girlfriend on the telephone, and wondering how the hell he got here. And Brydon is just having fun doing impressions.
I’m sure in real life, Coogan and Brydon are better friends then this movie makes them out to be. And I’m also sure that Coogan isn’t quite as petty as he plays himself to be in this movie. But yet, the movie still feels relaxed and realistic. Not being British, I never saw Coogan as Alan Patridge, but apparently it was huge over there, and as a result, it has typecast Coogan as a comic actor. He views himself as more than that, and is bitter than he doesn’t get better roles, and bitter still that Brydon doesn’t seem bitter at all at being labeled a comedian. Much of the movie is taken up with the two doing dueling impressions – Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Woody Allen, Roger Moore, etc – and although Brydon is quite clearly the more of the two mimics, Coogan won’t admit it, and continues on trying to top him. If he’s going to be just a comedian, than damn it, he’s going to be better than Brydon at it.
There is no story to speak of in The Trip. The movie is essentially a series of conversations between these two men – in the car, in various restaurants, at local tourist spots, or wherever they happen to be. The movie does take brief interludes to see the two men separate – talking to their significant others or children, and contrasting the way Coogan seems distant from his girlfriend and his son, and how easily Brydon and his wife get along. Coogan also has a lot of luck with barmaids and waitresses and hotel clerks and photographers, but then Brydon isn’t even trying.
The movie is about fame more than anything else, and in that way, it reminded me of Ricky Gervais’ brilliant show Extras. Maybe it’s a British thing, but both Extras and The Trip are really about how these two men get what they want, and are still not happy with it. Gervais’ character in Extras was pissed that his comedy became a hit with him in a silly wig, when he wanted to work with Scorsese. Coogan is pissed that he isn’t seen as a serious actor. And then there’s Brydon, just happy to go along for the ride. Perhaps the films best scene has Coogan trying to talk an old woman into letting them into a museum, even though it’s 5 after 5, and getting nowhere, and then seeing her light up when he’s meets Brydon. The look on Coogan’s face is funnier than anything I’ve seen in a long time.
The film was directed by Michael Winterbottom, who seemingly has worked in every genre known to man. He has made some brilliant films like The Claim and Jude, and some awful films like The Road to Guantanamo and Nine Songs, but the biggest thing is keeps working. Science fiction, Westerns, noir, documentary, neo-realism, comedies even movies with real sex, he just keeps churning them out, and even when they’re failures, they’re at least interesting ones. Through two movies with these two actors, he has made relaxed and hilarious comedies about fame. I have no idea how accurate or inaccurate the portraits in Tristram Shandy and The Trip are to Coogan and Brydon, and there is not doubt both are terrific sports at poking fun of themselves, but that doesn’t much matter. They work well together, even when, as in The Trip, there is absolutely no plot to work with. I hope this isn’t the last time these three get together.