Not far into Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip you get the sensation that the filmmakers’ driving impulse behind it could well be that they just wanted to have a laugh and maybe get somebody else to pay for it. Perhaps Winterbottom and his leads Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon did just want to have a good time and see if a movie came out of it. As these things go, there’s little chance that that’s how it actually worked out. The most relaxed-looking films are usually the most meticulously plotted. Well-planned or not, The Trip delivers itself to screen with a confidently larkish attitude. That this casual-seeming a work could have turned out to be one of the year’s standout comedies and probably the most purely perfect film Winterbottom has yet made, is one of those gifts that moviegoers so rarely receive.
If the filmmakers were in fact making a vacation of it with good food in bleakly dramatic surroundings, that would actually be right in line with the underlying impulse of the film’s Coogan (playing an aresy self-simulacrum) to go on the trip himself. The Observer asked him to take a ramble around the north of the country, writing amusingly about things while eating in nice restaurants and taking touristy detours. He wanted to do it because he could bring his girlfriend along. Then it turned out his girlfriend was going to be in America, but there was still that assignment to think of. The film opens on Coogan calling fellow comic Rob Brydon (also playing a reflection of himself) and asking him along – though not without making a jabbing point about how far down the ladder Brydon is, in Coogan’s estimation: “I’ve asked other people but they’re all too busy.”
The whole of The Trip is obsessed with status and success, at least from Coogan’s point of view. As a British comic who in real life has been on the verge of middling overseas success for years, Coogan here turns that brink-of-fame status into a carnivorous anxiety and aggression. As the two men trundle up the highways and byways of the north, Coogan wastes no opportunities to try and put Brydon in his place. That Brydon is generally too happy-go-lucky to even let on that he’s noticed the slight only adds to the sense that Coogan is in competition here with nobody but himself.
From one charming hotel to the next, Coogan strives to bed as many unattached women as possible, all the while vociferously denying it to his girlfriend. For his part, Brydon is happy to play the happily married and well-adjusted straight man, except when going head to head with Coogan in one of their mealtime impression battles. As the surgically prepared and scientifically presented little meals are brought to their tables by a procession of overly serious waitstaff, the two run riffs that one suspects are less about making each other laugh than they are trying out new material.
Coogan wants to lament that he’s burdened with a lesser talent: “I’m with a short Welsh man who does impressions; it’s not fun.” But his vanity won’t let him disconnect from what he sees as a challenge when, say, Brydon trots out his Michael Caine impression. Coogan’s retort and the back and forth which develops is not only one of the film’s high points (it’s hard to come out of the film not compulsively shouting their monomaniacally repeated Italian Job line, “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”) but also a sterling example of compulsive artistic one-upmanship. Even while Coogan makes a show of looking down on Brydon’s talent, all it takes is for one shopkeeper to recognize his travel companion and next thing we see Coogan up late staring in the mirror with horror as he realizes he simply can’t imitate Brydon’s most popular comic routine.
The nightmare trap of Coogan’s ambition, both ingratiating and arrogant, is continually one-upped by Michael Nyman’s faux-touching and ironically tasteful piano tinkling in the background, the exact kind of music you would expect to hear were an actor like Coogan making a real run at getting an Oscar nomination. (In a beautifully realized dream sequence, Coogan is led around a pool by an excited Ben Stiller who’s listing off all the directors who want to work with him, the Coens, Ridley and Tony Scott, “all the brothers, my man!”)
The Trip would be close to suffocating if it never left this very British trap of being reminded of one’s place were it not for its continual irruptions of blissfully comic moments. Their back-and-forth on the clichés of period action films (“Gentlemen, we arise at daybreak” … “It’s never 9:30”) would be wondrous stuff even if that exact cliché hadn’t reared up yet again this year by yet another overblown costume drama Anonymous.
Winterbottom does his usual hang-in-the-background routine, a fact that might have proved more problematic for those who saw the original six-hour miniseries version. (Those bits of it might make it into the voluminous deleted scenes and extras on this DVD are spottily amusing – particularly a long argument over the merits of Michael Sheen – but definitely show the advantage of the leaner edit.) For their part, Coogan and Brydon both empty the bucket, putting every ounce of their talent on screen and managing to do so without mugging for attention, like the film as a whole. It’s a comedy that doesn’t shout for your attention but holds it with an iron grip, regardless.