Reviews

‘The Trip’ is a Desperation Odyssey

Bleakly rolling moors and stiff-chinned restaurants bring a chilly tone to this austere, investigative, self-reflexive, and yet somehow rollicking comedy from the winningly self-reflexive Tristram Shandy band.


The Trip

Director: Michael Winterbottom
Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Margo Stilley
Distributor: MPI
Studio: IFC Films
Year: 2010
Release date: 2010-10-11

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.

8

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image