In the midst of a summer movie season dominated by expensive special effects and loud noises, one of the most entertaining cinematic offerings available consists of little more than two people talking. Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip traps British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon together for an extended road trip across England that sees them visiting restaurants, landmarks, poet’s homes, and bickering relentlessly along the way. The film is something of a feature length ode to a neurotic friendship between two longtime collaborators and study of middle age listlessness. It’s also really fucking funny and should not be missed by any self-confessed British comedy fan or anyone who simply enjoys laughter for that matter. Hit the jump for the full review.
Michael Winterbottom has been something of an odd duck of British filmmaking over the last decade, cranking out a film a year with subject matter varying from post-9/11 political thrillers (Road To Guantanamo, A Mighty Heart) to a controversial Jim Thompson adaptation (The Killer Inside Me) and an attempt at arty erotica, aka porn with a purpose (9 Songs). During that time he’s also carved out a niche as the main director helping longtime British comic Steve Coogan bring his unique talents to film. Coogan’s cracks at American filmmaking like Hamlet 2 and Around The World In 80 Days have largely been met with indifference and perhaps rightly so as they haven’t really captured his unique style. His TV work has achieved almost legendary status in Britain with his most famous creation Alan Partridge breaking ground in the world of hyper-realistic cringe comedy years before Ricky Gervais achieved international fame with The Office. Together the actor and director created a hilarious ode to the 70s/80s Manchester music scene in 24 Hour Party People as well as the bizarre exorcise in literary and cinematic self-consciousness Tristam Shandy. This appeal of that second film lied primarily in hilarious conversations between Coogan and Rob Brydon playing particularly neurotic versions of themselves and in a way The Trip feels like a sequel of sorts to that movie, with everything but the extended improv sessions removed.
The approach is barebones minimalism, but it works. Cogan and Bryon’s natural comedic rhythm born out of years of friendship offers more than enough material to carry the movie. It’s as if Winterbottom noticed that lunches he shared with the two actors on the sets of their previous movies proved to be funnier than what they were actually working on and decided to cut out the rest. In the UK The Trip was released as a 6-part TV series, but overseas we get a feature film version that cuts the running time in half. In lesser hands and with a more complicated plot, the result of that odd editing choice could have been disjointed and felt half-baked. But with a project as episodic and simple as this, the extra editing just provides a more streamlined and concise experience.
There’s no real point in going into a detailed plot description because there isn’t much of one. Coogan hires Brydon to join him on a cross-country restaurant tour for a newspaper article that was supposed to be a romantic trip with his decades younger girlfriend. But with her in LA, the trip turns into a gentle battle of egos between old friends and an excuse for a revenge-fueled string of affairs from Coogan. The heart of the movie lies in the contrast between Brydon’s content existence as a B-lister with a happy family life and Coogan’s endless desperation for greater fame and perpetual string of short-term relationships that leave him alone and unhappy. It’s a fascinating and at times uncomfortably candid portrayal of the easily bruised egos of creative people and the pain of being alone while middle-aged (in a weird way, it’s almost somewhat of a companion piece to Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop). That material is bitterly funny in a way that cuts deep and hurts, but fortunately it’s not all so heavy handed. Large portions of the dinner conversations consist of the remarkable mimics competing with their impressions of people like Michael Caine, Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, and several James Bonds. The scenes are cripplingly funny and free of melancholy. Plus in a nice touch, as the film and impressions wear on, the characters actually seem to tire of it before the audience.
The Trip is a frequently hysterical comedy with just enough human insight to feel substantial. For the most part, Winterbottom does a good job of setting the scene for the uninitiated even if a handful of jokes might fly over the heads of audiences unfamiliar with Coogan or Brydon’s long careers. It’s a fragile wisp of a movie with an emotional punch that sneaks up on you between the easy, rambling laughs. There are no big action scenes or lovingly framed booty shots to keep ADD viewers focused, but with so much of that available at the moment it’s feels like a breath of fresh air to see a movie that focuses entirely on the simple pleasures of careful characterization and acting. Inevitably, The Trip won’t appeal to everyone; however, for those willing to be seduced by its simple charms, this is one of the must-see movies of the summer.