Review: The Trip
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
In the comment thread of a recent article I wrote for a friend's web site, a reader called me out for snobbery, taking me to task for a few semi-snide remarks I made about popular comedies and the folks – or, more specifically, the men – who love them. Polite and articulate, the reader posed a perfectly valid complaint, and I owned up. Surely, in this very space, I've spat my share of venom at mainstream, male-targeted comedies that I found uninspired and utterly witless, if not totally insufferable. As a gay man (or maybe just as a broad-minded moviegoer), I'm sensitive to the oft-narrow focus of Hollywood, a pandering to a presumed demographic of rude, boorish, stereotypical heterosexuals that's nowhere more prevalent than in comedy. Masked by the powers of nyuk-nyuk diversion, it creates a false sense of satisfaction and, in turn, perpetuates a vicious cycle. I'll admit that, in general, I'm especially tough on these movies – for better or worse, I've come to consider that a part of my critical voice. But even with all of the above aside, most would agree that comedy is the hardest genre to tackle well, and many of the Hollywood films in question seem disobliged to put up an effort.
This is basically my very long way of saying that “The Trip” is not one of those movies, and that no venom will be spat here. Frequently hilarious, “The Trip” is a movie for friends and frenemies, foodies and film buffs (and, yes, men), all of whom can breathe a collective sigh of relief that Hollywood has virtually nothing to do with it. Though I hesitate to say this, lest I spoil the specialness of British comedy (see “In the Loop,” right now), it is a model of a movie that U.S. studios would be blessed to emulate – a movie that's accessible, but far from witless; rude, but not overtly crass; and decidedly male, but aimed at men with average (not abysmal) IQs. Directed by Michael Winterbottom, the Revolution Films production (released stateside through IFC) stars comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, both of whom also appeared in Winterbottom's “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.” It's an edited cut of a six-episode BBC sitcom series and, like “Tristram Shandy,” it sees Coogan and Brydon play (largely) fictionalized versions of themselves. Wanting to impress his American squeeze, a much-younger foodie named Mischa (Margo Stilley), Coogan accepts an offer from The Observer to tour the restaurants of northern England for an upcoming food column. When Mischa backs out, Coogan invites Brydon, a colleague and obvious longtime acquaintence whom Coogan, in a dishonest display of superiority, treats like a woeful last resort.
Odds are you've been one of these men, or maybe both. Like Coogan, you've probably had a friend who's always been loyal but, for whatever reason, just doesn't fit into your selfish, high-school notions of who your friends should be. You might spend the weekend with him, but talk ill of him to those who better fit the mold. Or, like Brydon, maybe you've had a friend who only calls you on occasion, and even then is sure to let you know that “no one else was available.” For whatever reason, you find value, even pleasure, in these interactions, and you're able to see past the other's feigned insistence that there isn't any (all without sacrificing your dignity). Clearly, Brydon is the more sensible and likable of the two – a settled family man with the gift of contentment who's learned to embrace Coogan despite it all. His big flaw is that he is, perhaps, too wrapped in that contentment, shielding himself from the bigger world with, say, his perpetual stream of celebrity impersonations (more on those in a bit). Coogan is more your typical middle-aged single-male success story, a Peter Pan whose relationship problems are really existential ones, and who still shoots for imagined ideals instead of accepting what's in front of him (there's talk of kids, who, naturally, are neglected). Through the course of “The Trip,” each man brings out a bit of self-realization in the other, but the film handles it all so suavely and discreetly you barely realize it's happening. That and you're way too busy laughing your ass off.
Highly improvisational, the movie keenly exploits Coogan's and Brydon's odd-couple dynamic right away, shacking them up together in a single-bed hotel room at the first tour stop. Brydon couldn't care less, but Coogan is livid, calling his assistant and appealing to the hotel clerk with smug condescension (“Just call me Steve,” he tells her, “none of that 'Mr. Coogan' nonsense”). Coogan's self-deprecating egotism is probably the first source of major guffaws, such as when he bumblingly starts to seduce said clerk amidst patches of awkward silence. The first meal reveals both men's talents for impersonation, leading to one of many hysterical duels that feature the uncanny vocal cameos of Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins, among others. There's a terrific element of competition in terms of who has more talent, with Coogan insisting he's the better actor when, really, he's simply more famous (in private, he deliciously tries to practice some of Brydon's bits). Then there's the cuisine, which, of course, gives the men a common target to love, loathe, or merely examine (“Nothing like a lollipop made of duck fat,” they muse, or, “The drink's consistency is a bit like snot”).
The journey is peppered with fun detours, be them Coogan's dreams about his inadequacies (one of which is the funniest scene in the film), or the pair's traversal of the moorlands, where a great many character details are nicely emphasized. They visit the former home of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who, the guide tells Coogan, “couldn't cope with the domesticity of life.” They reach a point with a collection of outdoor cliffs, and Coogan opts to climb them while contented Brydon sits it out. They reach a creek, and Coogan walks a line of stepping stones, only to fall in halfway across. Brydon tells him, “It's a metaphor! You got stuck halfway to your destination!” Never does one man acknowledge what the other means to him, not even when they both mockingly discuss each other's funerals. There's certainly an air of melancholy to the film, which remains palapable unto the final shot. But it's mostly an acidically sweet road movie, which never stoops so low as to point that it's actually about food for the soul. With its gourmet dishes and offshore talent and Euro flourishes, it'd be easy to label it an uppity affair – a comedy befitting a snob. But it's not. It's a comedy for all who, instead of that false sense of satisfaction, prefer a fine sense of sustenance.