Friday, June 17, 2011

The Trip

Comedy In The Countryside, Pain In The Heart

Steve Coogan (left) and Rob Brydon, who play themselves in Michael Winterbottom's "The Trip". 
IFC Films

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
day, June 17, 2011

"The Trip" reunites director Michael Winterbottom with the talented duo of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (both of the director's "Tristram Shandy".)  "The Trip" finds its two leads, who play themselves, venturing out of their London homes and driving to the outer reaches of the English countryside.  "The Trip" expanded its release in select U.S. cities today and is on video on demand next week.

Steve, looking for bigger and better acting opportunities in film, takes a semi-vacation.  The Observer newspaper has asked Steve to visit several restaurants in England's Lake Country in the Northwest, specifically West Yorkshire.  Steve's girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley of Mr. Winterbottom's "9 Songs") was his original choice of company on the trip up North, but for unexplained reasons she declines. 

We know that Steve and Mischa have a tenuous relationship.  (Ms. Stilley by the way, bears a strong resemblance to, and sounds like, Maggie Gyllenhaal.)  We know that Steve has a teenage son.  Rob has a wife and daughter he loves dearly, and seems less pressed to worry about his career.  He's a family man and Steve's closest friend.  Together they trek north, entertaining and aggravating each other along the way.

"The Trip" skillfully executes what is an elongated conversation piece ala "My Dinner With Andre" but keeps its characters fluid and moving in different settings, even if one of the characters is static in life's day-to-day.  As the comedic routines and bickering between this "married couple" ensues something else percolates beneath the surface, yet the film's editing by Mags Arnold and Paul Monaghan often purposely truncates or abruptly terminates the episodes until the film's latter third, when some of the unspoken feelings and moods are allowed to emerge and flow.  If it had ever been forgotten that comedy comes from pain, "The Trip" discreetly reminds us.

Mr. Winterbottom makes good use of expansive natural terrain, accentuating expanse but also distance and loneliness, marked by Steve, who is often isolated yet can't seem to get away from himself even when he's alone.  The director often emphasizes the vastness of natural settings in smaller character-driven films ("9 Songs"), as a means of reinforcing disconnection or distance from, rather than harmony with, the character.  A look at the Antarctic in "Songs" felt more like alienation or isolation from human life than an appreciation of natural beauty or harmony with it, and in "The Trip" when Steve treks up a mountain and walks along its summit he, and we, don't get time to enjoy and appreciate it, in an amusing scene.

A male-bonding comedy at its heart, "The Trip" hilariously comments on pop culture and beloved English and Welsh actors, whom both Steve and Rob do impressions of with glee, each trying to one-up the other like rival brothers in mischief.  When they aren't intoning some of the world's most famed actors they are commenting on women and the accoutrements of the hotel rooms they stay in.  "The Trip" glories in the informal pissing contest between Rob and Steve, and it is at the heart of the film's wild laughter.

Mr. Coogan in particular excels as the straight man to Mr. Brydon's torrent of verbal gymnastics, although both are hardly beneath making complete lovable fools of themselves.  Mr. Winterbottom films "The Trip" in a documentary style suited more for television, where both actors are very much at home.  You needn't know of Mr. Coogan's and Mr. Brydon's comic routines in British productions (namely the forerunning BBC TV program "The Trip"!) to enjoy them here, although as a native Londoner I thoroughly enjoyed the in-jokes and references to British tunes and television. 

Essentially a feature film edition of the multi-part BBC TV series, the "Trip" interactions between Mr. Coogan (also a Winterbottom alum in "24 Hour Party People") and Mr. Brydon are purely improvisational.  Their philosophical banter is always enjoyable and effective, even when the humor isn't so sharp.  For all their energy and enthusiasm you sense however, that Steve and Rob are restraining themselves.  This strait-jacketing of the some aspects of their characters or alter egos works well for "The Trip" as it builds to its climax, whose arrival is not entirely out of the blue.  We see and feel glimpses of truth underlying the irony in some of the words these two men utter, and suggestions of emptiness in the routines and grind of life.

"The Trip" sees two middle-aged men worrying about age, about family and security.

Everything matters in this smart, entertaining comedy: the purposefully out-of-kilter non-matching shots during phone conversations to emphasize an out-of-sync feel and distance; the barren, colorless but no less beautiful locations; and food, a major character in its own right.  Decorously and sparsely presented food is a metaphor for the food of life, which either or both of these men haven't tasted enough of.

Mr. Winterbottom never seems to make exactly the same film twice, venturing from documentary ("The Road To Guantanamo Bay", "The Shock Doctrine") to fact-based drama ("A Mighty Heart") to comedy (the aforementioned "Party People") to concert interlude ("9 Songs") to fictional drama ("The Killer Inside Me".)  More often than not the results are good, and "The Trip" falls into the "more often" category.

Moving, funny and clever, "The Trip" is a journey well worth taking, accounting for greater fun and joy than its eventual final destination provides.

With: Claire Keelan, Rebecca Johnson, Dolya Gavanski, Paul Popplewell.

Read this review here

"The Trip" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America.  The film contains curse words that the average adult is familiar with.  The film's running time is one hour and 51 minutes.

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