Monday, June 20, 2011

The Trip: Five Course Meal, Hold the Pleasanty

The Trip
Directed By: Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon
Director of Photography: Ben Smithard
Rated: Not Rated, but plenty of foul language.

            The Trip is the latest collaboration between director Michael Winterbottom and British comedian Steve Coogan. The duo have been perfect compliments for each other in the past—Mr. Winterbottom has a ironic and meta-textual obseesion with his humor, which Mr. Coogan matches with his under the breath jabs and self-deprecating tone. But it’s always been Mr. Winterbottom that drives the films. 24 Hour Party People would not be as memorable without his strange collision of history and fantasy, and his adaptation of Tristram Shandy perfectly encapsulates the tone of the novel by using a narrative structure similar to a set of Russian dolls.

            And that’s the main difference in The Trip, a mostly improvised comedy starring Mr. Coogan, as well as Rob Brydon, who starred with him in Tristram Shandy. The film’s narrative is paper thin, but Mr. Coogan and Mr. Brydon are natural together that they don’t really care for one, and Mr. Winterbotton has no agenda here but to capture their absurdity. And while The Trip never breaks ground in terms of really exploring these characters, the comedians are so deliciously fun it’s hard not to turn away.

      The film, which has been edited down from a BBC miniseries to under two hours, follows Mr. Coogan and Mr. Brydon playing loose versions of themselves. Mr. Coogan has been asked by The Observer to review fancy restaurants in the North of England, and when his girlfriend, along with ten or so other people he calls, bail on him, he begrudgingly invites Mr. Brydon. The two “friends” couldn’t be more different in both their life ambitions as well as their humor. Mr. Coogan, wildly popular in the UK for the show I’m Alan Partridge, hopes to break into the US film industry and work with important auteurs (Mr. Coogan will be most recognizable to American audiences from his role in Tropic Thunder). Mr. Brydon, younger and and more doughy-eyed, is happy being a part of the BBC industry and doing his series of wacky impressions.
            And thus impressions make up a large part of The Trip, which can either be a delight, or a complete nuisance. In the film’s iconic scene, the two debate how to do the perfect Michael Caine, and watching the two debate the finer points of how to create the voice—while in character nonetheless—is a delight. From there, we see Pacino, De Niro, Connery, McKellen, Hopkins, and the list goes on. Mr. Brydon loves doing his impressions, and Mr. Coogan can’t stand them, especially when he thinks they are wrong and must debate his choices.

          Unfortunately, The Trip spends too much time trying to flop a half-baked story around the exquisite banter. Subplots involving Mr. Coogan’s failed love life as well as career (save for a show stopping cameo) feel tacked on to give the film weight, when it’s best as a lightweight comedy. What is memorable in The Trip is not the piece as a whole, but individual scenes, like an annoying man who rattles off facts about geography, a dinner of small plates that look increasingly absurd, and a discussion about the proper time the cavalry should leave for battle (“Gentlemen, to bed! We leave for battle about 9:30ish!”)

            It becomes easy to see why The Trip worked on television in easy to digest morsels of thirty minutes or less, and why it doesn’t exactly translate to the big screen as one would hope. And that’s the difference between Mr. Winterbottom and Mr. Coogan, who, if really trying to go for some meta-commentary on his own career, can’t exactly find the right tone to fit it. The Trip is full of excellent humor, but it’s a little too long and a little unpolished to be a masterstroke of comedy.

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