Michael Winterbottom’s latest film, The Trip, manages a real sense of honesty that few comedies rarely achieve. Once again teaming up with his Tristram Shandyactors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, the prolific and eclectic Winterbottom fashions a truthful and almost entirely improvised look at the nature of friendship and what it means to be a comedian. As with many pieces of metafiction, the film isn’t entirely as clever as it thinks it is, but the sheer believability of the principals makes for a very funny and oddly moving experience.
The film, which has been edited down from it’s previous incarnation as a British television series, finds Coogan (playing himself) being comissioned to write a piece forthe Observer about travelling across the UK and eating at various restaurants in far flung locations. Steve is dismayed for numerous reasons, not the least of which is thinking that the assignment is somewhat beneath him. His career has largely stalled and his girlfriend, who helped him organize and plan the trip, has opted to stay behind in Los Angeles. Accompanying him on his cross country journey is friend and actor Rob Brydon, who is the eternal optimist and family man who stands almost in constant cosmic and karmic opposition to the more self serious Coogan.
The chemistry between Coogan and Brydon is positively off the charts. In scenes where Steve and Rob are sitting down to eat, the film plays like a series of My Dinner With Andre style discussions told by duelling impressionists. These are quite riveting and often uproariously funny discussions about the nature of acting and comedy, filled with as many astute observations as they are laughs. When the men are together on the road or simply exploring the countryside, the subtle bouts of the duo undercutting each other remain, but they are tempered by a more intimate and introspective tone. Coogan and Brydon are smart enough to play their roles to fit thesetting they find themselves in. They clearly understand that people will talk in a more intimate fashion outside of a public setting, and in these scenes they show a real knowledge of how character development works. Coogan plays himself as a man who has tasted stardom, but is still socially awkward in many ways, especially when he has to stop being an actor and start functioning as a boyfriend or as a father. Brydon plays himself as a loving and deeply caring person who isn’t fully aware that he doesn’t have to be “on” all the time and he probably never actually realizes how annoying that can be.
Much like many films with no discernible plot and largely improvised material (there are no writing credits on this film at all), not everything is a winner. Brief scenes discussing and documenting Steve’s inability to be faithful to his girlfriend feel tacked on and lacking in any real sort of impact, especially in light of the film’s final sequence which would have been far more moving without the previously unnecessary provocation. A few sequences oddly strain believability to the point where an amusing dream sequence feels more realistic than several scenes that take place within the actual world of the characters. The film’s reliance on the actors doing impressions also bounces between being funny and being tiresome (but astoundingly never annoying). Then again, maybe all of the problems that I personally have withthe film are part of the actual point Winterbottom and company are trying to make. As a portrait of comedic life, The Trip functions far better than Judd Apatow’s similarly themed but wildly overblown Funny People and it showcases two great talents as they go on a journey that is equal parts introspective and intellectual. Much like a great deal of the food they eat on screen, The Trip might be an acquired taste, but it all goes down very easily.
The Trip opens in Toronto on July 1 and Ottawa on August 12.
Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
Directed by: Michael Winterbottom
Top image: A scene from The Trip. Courtesy Alliance Films