You’re stuck halfway to your destination.
“It’s a job,” Steve Coogan explains. He’s been hired by the Observer—“for a small fee”—to tour fine restaurants in the north of England. As jobs go, it’s not a bad one. And so he convinces his colleague Rob Brydon to come along. They’ll have fun, they imagine. And they’ll eat great food.
And so Coogan and Brydon, playing versions of themselves, pack up the car and head off into the Lake District. It’s clear enough from the start of Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip that the focus is not the scallops and pigeon they’ll be ordering. Rather, it’s on the men’s shifting dynamic, as they embark on a series of meditations on show business, women, and something like the meaning of life.
Though they keep to a routine comprised of eating and sightseeing, they’re inclined to be distracted, and to distract each other. As the boys make their way from The Inn at Whitewell to Greta Hall (once Coleridge’s house, where, the guys note, he used Laudanum) in Ottery St. Mary to Holbeck Ghyll in Windermere, Cumbria, they come up with games to entertain themselves, competitions and performances that repeatedly escalate. A routine is soon set: at each meal or during each drive, they start with a bit of banter concerning movie stars, then launch into imitations—Michael Caine, Dustin Hoffman, Hugh Grant, Sean Connery—or perhaps ponder Warren Beatty’s awesome sex life, their own fate or the unlikely success of Michael Sheen. During one rousing sequence on the road, they sing Abba’s “The Winner Takes It All,” with alarming conviction.
Even as such games are briefly fun, they do run on, which seems to the point. For all the privilege they assume and enjoy, these guys are bored, and they can’t find a reason for what they’re doing. But rather than let that non-story not develop, The Trip falls back on a standard narrative device, setting up their oppositeness in moral terms. Adapted and condensed from a six-part BBC series, the film heads pretty directly to an awfully neat ending, with an instruction to boot: men on the road, no matter how cavalier and clever they may think themselves, fid themselves when they’re home again.
This neatness is set up early, as Brydon leaves behind his adoring wife (Emma, played by Claire Keelan) and adorable new baby, while Coogan has nothing waiting for him, only a girlfriend named Mischa (Margot Stilley) who’s recently left for the States. They’re having “issues,” it seems, owing to his philandering and her frustration. As he worries about getting older, he seeks reaffirmation with younger women, a Polish hotel receptionist or a photographer sent out to document his journey. “Women are my windmills,” Coogan jokes, “I tilt at them.” Bryden smiles, misses Emma, and remembers how grand it is when she laughs at his jokes.
When the girls don’t precisely comfort him, Coogan takes to making fun of Bryden, comparing their careers. Where Bryden is best known and too often rewarded for his character—limited by definition—“The Small Man in a Box,” Coogan looks back on the movies he’s made, and toys with the idea of signing a seven-year contract to do a TV series in America, called Pathological. “If it goes,” he knows, “You’re a household name.” But still, he worries about settling down. “You know where I am,” says Mischa during one of their cut-short phone conversations, “You can see me anytime.” As a commitment to the TV show begins to sound like a commitment to the girlfriend, Coogan begins to reel.
“I want to be in films,” he tells his American agent by phone, “I want to be in good films.” (After all, the film shows, in the U.K., fans know him as Alan Partridge, the role he played in Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People.) His career anxieties lead Coogan into a couple of too-cute nightmares. In one, he’s visiting Ben Stiller poolside in LA, and never quite catching what’s at stake, though he pretends he’s a veteran with all manner of confidence.
In another scene, not a dream but it might have been, Coogan takes a solo detour to the Malham limestone pavement. Against this stunning backdrop, ideal for all kinds of brooding and rethinking, he runs into a guy who’s read a few too many tour books, so he’s brimming with facts and statistics, quite killing the moment. As Coogan backs away, both rude and flummoxed, it’s hard not to feel bad for him. But it’s hard to feel sympathy too.