[21 October 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Nobody should look this miserable having a supposedly good time. No one, be it on holiday or as part of a cook’s tour of Northern England, should be so angst-ridden and afraid. But that’s exactly the look that UK funnyman Steve Coogan carries throughout the likeable, laugh-filled quasi-documentary The Trip. Taken from a six part UK series co-starring the artist formerly/currently known as Alan Partridge and his comedian/impressionist buddy Rob Brydon, what was supposed to be a sunny adventure with his live-in love (a woman known only as Mischa) turns into a battle of wits between two men whose company they could each care less for, accented by meals that simultaneously make your mouth water and your jaw drop…if just a bit.
This movie compilation of the TV show removes the restaurant-ccentric approach previously provided (the gentlemen end up eating at six different establishments during their journey, including The Inn at Whitewell, L’Enclume, Holbeck Ghyll, Hipping Hall, The Yorke Arms, and The Angel at Hetton) and, instead, focuses on the simmering subterranean feud apparently going on between them. The main narrative threads include Coogan’s anger over never being offered “A-list” or “dramatic” roles, fielding phone calls from his agents and rejected proposed projects they want him to work in. He also fancies himself more famous and talented than Brydon, and the duo dive into this judgment via a string of sensational showdowns, mimicking everyone from Michael Caine to Sean Connery, even giving Richard Gere and Michael Sheen a run for their mannered money.
And yet, the overriding emotion that prevails during this Trip is fear: fear of career failure; fear of being desperate and dateless; fear that one is never as popular or productive as one imagines; fear of fatherhood; fear of death; and perhaps, most importantly, fear of food. Life is apparently all scallops and satire in jolly old England, more plates of that delicate, delectable seafood served than anything else here. Lamb also makes a constant appearance, as does other types of fish. During the most intriguing visit of the excursion - the uber snooty food hoot that is L’Enclume - we see starters referred to as having a “snot like” consistency, while the chef argues that he needed his tweezers to complete the garnish on a specific dish. It’s like walking into a weird world of haute cuisine with participants who care, but who can’t truly comprehend the genius and/or pretension involved.
Indeed, The Trip is consistently less about the meal and more about the men having it. Coogan’s “character” (both men admit to embellishing the truth, playing exaggerated versions of themselves) may be the more despondent and dire, but it’s Brydon who comes across as the most needy. He is constantly breaking into an impression, unable to read anything without suddenly channeling one of his many famous voices. Yet all the while, as he works through Pacino and DeNiro among others, there is a look in his eyes that’s defining. This is man who is eager - nay, desperate - for attention. If Coogan can’t commit and has lousy relationships with those around him, Brydon is the talent who no one takes seriously - not as a performer or a person. His consistent dismissal is one of The Trip‘s best bits.
So are the sequences where Coogan gets his always necessary comeuppance. Phone calls to agents and Mischa prove how out of touch and yet tentative he is. He has feelings. He just can’t get past his own jealousies and anxieties to enjoy/express them. While Brydon is all open faced and welcoming, his traveling companion comes across as one cross word away from a knock dog drag out brawl. Yet we enjoy when he’s put in his place, like when a visiting tourist takes up the cause for the area’s startling limestone formations, arguing for the issue Brydon had with Coogan’s nonstop narration a few moments before. Similarly, a stodgy old lady at a local landmark won’t acknowledge our star’s need for admittance. The minute she see Brydon, however, her love of his “little man locked in a box” voice gets them in.
For his part, director Michael Winterbottom works miracles, subtracting sizable amounts of content (there was at least 30 minutes cut to make way for a movie-like running time) while keeping the core ideas ever-present. Toward the end, when it looks like Brydon and Coogan have come to some kind of casual truce, we anticipate a massive finale as falling out. Instead, the genius of The Trip is that we come to terms with the complicated men we’ve been following. For them, friendship is more than mutual respect and likes. It’s having someone to bounce obtuse literary and geographical facts off of. It’s discovering a secret (or six) that you never knew. And most importantly, it’s having a mate who can manage to imitate as many famous names as you without undermining your own undeniable skill.
Yet one can’t help that each made this Trip in order to forward their own lingering doubts. Some of the comments - Coogan’s anger over not getting better movie roles, Brydon basically begging to be noticed - indicate real concerns and authentic levels of anguish. Comedy is often based on dread and deliberate self-doubt, the need to make fun (of yourself…others…anything) to keep the world from doing the same to you. While it’s often gorgeous to look at and mouthwatering in its main culinary delights, this particular outing is more of a journey inward than a tasty travelogue. While everything looks wonderful on the exterior, we witness to talents battling a bunch of inner demons that drive them to distraction. Luckily, their issues are our punchlines. The Trip is very funny. It’s also one unusual detour to the center of two celebrities’ minds.