Our friends Randy and Barbara are avid movie watchers. Avid. The classics in particular. They’ve seen most of the films worth seeing from the 40s to the 60s, as well as a hefty chunk of films from those eras (and others) that they can vociferously suggest that you avoid. They’re partial to British humour, not least of which includes A Bit of Fry and Laurie. It’s because of this predilection of theirs that I thought they would very much Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, which came out widely this past year (technically, 2010). All of the reviews I heard focused on the banter between Coogan and his companion, Rob Brydon, via – amongst other things – their dueling Michael Caine impersonations.
All of which is to say, I was really expecting a comedy. I’m pretty sure that Netflix – from whence I streamed it – has it categorized in comedy. I think I can be forgiven for going into that movie expecting that dueling Michael Caines were going to be emblematic of the kind of humor I’d be seeing. Because it really wasn’t like that very much at all. It had funny parts, sure, but so does Truly Madly Deeply, which is the funniest film about grieving that I’ve ever seen. In other words, it’s probably better not to think about The Trip as a comedy. Maybe the producers figured more people would come and see the movie if they thought it was witty, awkward banter.
Here’s the set-up. The Observer has hired Steve Coogan to go and check out some fancy restaurants in the north, presumably on the strength of his being from Manchester. Except that his maybe-maybe-not girlfriend Misha is the foodie and she’s in New York City. Rob Brydon is the 7th or 10th or 11th person that Coogan has called and he’s the first one available. Coogan tells him so, but Brydon’s up for the five-day trip anyway. Coogan is unhappy with the whole idea of the trip now, while Brydon seems happy with the easy gig. Those emotions will set the tone for their entire interaction and for the entire film.
Coogan is unhappy with his career. He’s left impressions behind but has never had a breakout dramatic success and is frustrated. Brydon still does impressions and seems delighted with where his career is. Coogan’s divorced, doesn’t remember all of the women he’s slept with, whereas Brydon calls his wife up every night before bed and tries to have phone sex with her, but in Hugh Grant’s voice. Look up there at the poster image – it’s all there! Everything about this movie is captured in that image, and hardly any of the reviews I remember talked about how fundamentally morose a story it is.
Don’t take “morose” as a reason not to see this. Winterbottom has given the film a documentary feel. The two men are in the car a great deal. The camera lingers on their food (it was, originally, a six-part television series, cut down to 1:51 for theatrical release). There are frustrating and frustrated conversations. It all feels, frequently, very cinema verité. In a similar way to a documentary, Winterbottom lets the story unfold. It doesn’t follow climactic drama (Ghost of Aristotle – begone!). No one has a real character arc, but you do get to know the two men better and better. The Trip is much more of a portrait than it is a narrative. Ironically, Coogan is the more central figure. The reason why this is ironic? Because his main frustration is that he’s not a central figure.
The Trip is a clever, quiet film and a fascinating bit of bait-and-switch storytelling. It has some of Ricky Gervais’ awkward humor without his meanness. It’s not even about friends, because the cinematic versions of Coogan and Brydon are, at best, friendly colleagues, but it’s pretty clear, especially by the end, that they don’t hold one another in the highest regard. And for a film that’s often quite sad, it has some remarkably delightful, light moments.
I still don’t know if Randy and Barbara have seen it, but at least I can tell them what it’s about now.