‘The Trip’ Hilariously Reunites Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon

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HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 3.5/5.0
Rating: 3.5/5.0

CHICAGO – There are few things more cinematically depressing than a funny comic trapped in an unfunny movie. Think Larry David in “Whatever Works.” Scene to scene, his eyes repeatedly indicate that there’s a funnier punchline residing in his mischievous skull than there is in the lifeless script. You know a picture’s in trouble when you find yourself yearning to watch the actor eat lunch rather than finish the godforsaken movie.
The supposed masterstroke in Michael Winterbottom’s new comedy, “The Trip,” is that it consists of nothing more than two very funny men eating lunch. And dinner. And driving in the car to the next restaurant. There isn’t a conventional plot (or script) to get in the way of the performers’ improvisational genius. In the opening moments of the film, the actors are heard riffing over the phone, sliding into the personas they mastered together in Winterbottom’s 2005 comic gem, “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.” The riffing continues for the next two hours.

Audiences less inclined to appreciate the subtle nuances of dry British deadpan may find this film rather irritating, but I was thoroughly enthralled by it. I admire the confidence with which Winterbottom centers his focus solely on the faces, the voices and the richly textured behavior of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Their extended bickering over the end credits in “Tristram Shandy” was easily my favorite part of the film, and left me craving for more. Perhaps “The Trip” is almost too much of a good thing. Winterbottom allows his camera to continue rolling until Coogan and Brydon have explored every last ounce of a promising sketch. Some scenes are simply funnier than others. A handful reach the heights of inspired genius, while a few threaten to grind the film to a halt. Yet the movie never truly outstays its welcome, and once it’s over, viewers might feel compelled to rewind back to their favorite parts. Ever the versatile artist, Winterbottom infuses the picture with the same guerilla-style filmmaking and mumblecore-esque looseness he brought to 2008’s criminally overlooked drama, “A Summer in Genoa.” There’s an aching poignance in the final reel that causes the film to become something more than a glorified exercise in actorly indulgence.

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan star in Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip.
Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan star in Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip.
Photo credit: IFC Films

Coogan fans are well aware that the pokerfaced comedian is skilled at playing a hilariously smug version of himself, perhaps most memorably in Jim Jarmusch’s “Coffee and Cigarettes.” Here, Coogan shifts between shades of amusement and aggravation as he drags his buddy Brydon along the English countryside to sample the country’s most formidably high class restaurants (the footage was originally assembled in the form of a six-episode BBC2 mockumentary). One may instantly wonder what led these mismatched performers to become friends in the first place. Sure, Brydon is merely filling in for Coogan’s absent American girlfriend (played by Margo Stilley, the American girlfriend from Winterbottom’s “9 Songs”). But could Coogan seriously not think of anyone else to bring along with him? Perhaps someone who isn’t always one muscle spasm away from breaking out into a boisterous, arguably accurate celebrity impression? On the other hand, there may not be anyone else. What becomes increasingly clear is the loneliness that Coogan’s self-referential character masks with contented detachment. It takes a phone call from his son for Coogan to acknowledge that the man he so blatantly reviles may actually be his only true companion in the world. Cinematographer Ben Smithard creates images of startling melancholic beauty, such as when Coogan hikes up a hill to search for a cell phone signal.

At its best, “The Trip” plays like an episode of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s brilliant sitcom, “Extras,” which explored the relationship between a terminally unsatisfied actor relegated to bit parts and his ever-loyal, decidedly dim co-star. There’s more than a little bit of Andy Millman in Coogan’s portrayal of himself this time around. He bitterly rants about how studio executives still haven’t taken him seriously as an actor, and refers to Michael Sheen as the “albatross around his neck.” Lord only knows why the Observer selected him to write a feature-length food critique, since his observations are no more insightful than, “The consistency is like snot, but it tastes great.” The laughs come fast and furiously once Coogan and Brydon begin dissecting the mechanics of acting itself by imitating their favorite performers. Much has been written about the duo’s dueling Michael Caine impressions, which are assuredly hilarious, though Brydon easily wins that round with his halting delivery and tinge of “cigar and brandy” in his tone. Coogan, however, does the best “Woody Allen” I’ve seen in years.

Michael Winterbottom on the set of his new comedy, The Trip.
Michael Winterbottom on the set of his new comedy, The Trip.
Photo credit: IFC Films

Early on, Brydon has a line that seems to mirror Winterbottom’s own philosophy as one of the most prolific and boldly adventurous directors in the business. As Coogan complains about the current lack of originality, Brydon says, “It’s 2010. Everything’s been done before. You can only do it better or do it differently.” That’s precisely what Winterbottom has done with “The Trip,” which puts its own distinctive and somewhat subversive spin on elements previously used by Alexander Payne’s “Sideways”—the misanthropic lead with a childlike sidekick, the awkward phone calls with distant loved ones, the elitist food tastings, the fears of middle age and the underlying sweetness of friendship. It’s easily the most playful film Winterbottom has made since “Tristram Shandy,” reminding audiences that his gift for meticulous detail and off-the-cuff realism transcends the boundaries of genre. He’s a filmmaker unafraid to fail when taking gambles, though I wonder if he was aware of how a key scene in “The Trip” indirectly tweaks his earlier work.

As Coogan attempts to cross a stream by hopping along a pathway of rocks, he ends up slipping into the water after reaching an impasse, prompting Brydon to shout, “It’s a metaphor!” from a nearby bridge. It’s a pity Brydon wasn’t around to shout the same thing during the moments of self-conscious symbolism in “9 Songs.” Just picture the scene: Kieran O’Brien peers out of his airplane window and glances at the arctic wasteland, as his narration awkwardly relates it to the claustrophobia and agoraphobia of his recent relationship. Suddenly, far below on the ground, O’Brien spots a toothy penguin voiced by Brydon who squawks, “It’s a metaphor!”

‘The Trip’ stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. It was directed by Michael Winterbottom. It opened June 17 at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema and the Landmark Renaissance Place. It is not rated.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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