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The Trip Review

In 2002, English filmmaker Michael Winterbottom
directed the little seen but aggressively unique pseudo-biopic/documentary 24 Hour Party People, a fictionalized
retelling of the “Madchester” music scene of the ’80s brought about by famed
news personality and music enthusiast, Tony Wilson. The use of handheld cameras
gave the film a documentary feel, but Wilson (played by TV character actor Steve
Coogan) is both omnipresent and omniscient in the film, calling out events
before they happen, often while directly talking to the audience. It’s an
energetic use of self-reflexivity that ties into the film’s punk subject matter
by recognizing the artifice of trying to mimic the slippery status of what
“cool” was at the time, while also chasing after that same status in a modern
context, where cultural currency demands self-awareness and reference. To quote
Wilson, it’s all about “being postmodern, before it’s fashionable.”

Winterbottom and Coogan re-teamed in 2006 for the
comedy Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull
Story
, which begins as an adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s hyper-self-aware
novel before pulling back another layer and documenting the mostly professional
and always petty struggles of star Steve Coogan, playing “Steve Coogan,” as a
kind of prankish meta-humor that’s largely based on the viewers familiarity
with him.

As though intent on bucking the trend, The Trip, an exquisite new film from Winterbottom out on DVD this week, is a largely improvised
quasi-documentary following Coogan and comedian Rob Brydon as they tour
Northern England reviewing restaurants, a plot summary that would suggest a
maturing of the director out of his “punk” decade.  Whereas their previous collaborations were boastfully
subversive, The Trip is played entirely
straight and dialed so far back that even the title barely registers in the
shadow of Winterbottom and Coogan’s last two films.
Brydon and Coogan at dinner
Pared down
from a six-hour BBC series, the film holds no real plot behind the basic premise
and is more interested in the interplay between its two traveling companions
than the restaurants being toured. Originally planned as a means to impress the
girlfriend who recently dumped him, Coogan asks his occasional co-star and
sometimes friend Rob Brydon to come along instead and their relationship is the
meat of the film. Thankfully, it’s a very funny one, as Coogan’s mock disdain
for Brydon, particularly his reliance on eerily accurate celebrity impressions,
is borne by Brydon with a light-hearted enthusiasm. Even when Coogan calls out
his career as mediocre, Brydon takes solace in the words of Bob Balaban of all
people, knowing that it’s better to have a career that’s consistent, instead of
one that supernova — an act that Coogan (so he thinks) is trying to repeat.

Despite Coogan’s efforts to establish himself as not
just different, but better than Brydon as a comic, the film is at its
funniest when the pair comes together, often in the form of tandem riffing to an
offhand comment. Two minutes of car travel produce serious laughs when one
realizes that the commanders in costume dramas always demand their troops to be up
at daybreak, “They never leave at, you know, 9:30.” Each employs a mix of
character comedy and intellectual allusion, with Brydon favoring the former
and Coogan the latter, producing on-screen chemistry that’s equal parts chummy
and combative. Even when performing dueling impersonations, the two click
together perfectly, Brydon nailing the voices and Coogan adopting the
mannerisms, and between the two a strong case for the existence of a kitschy
form of comedy is made.

It’s when they’re apart that the dramatic elements
of the TV series interject and it’s likely in these moments that the audience
will decide just how much they enjoy the film. The constant barbing back and forth
inevitably ends with Brydon coming out on top. Despite winning only mock
interest and half-hearted scorn from his contemporary, Rob has not only come to
terms with, but come to love where he is in life. He’s  happily married father who relishes his moments in the spotlight regardless of how small, even
the ones that don’t make it into the final cut. Rob has carved out his place in
the world and seems damned proud of it, which is the unspoken source of Steve’s
disdain, envious of the satisfaction Rob has attained, but too proud and self-serious
to stoop to what he would consider settling.

Coogan has spent so long on the brink of stardom that
the chase has left him worn-out professionally and personally. He’s divorced,
in a failing relationship and is a father only when his ex needs him to play
the bad cop to his teenage son. Whether Coogan’s mid-life crisis holds any
water for the audience is almost entirely determined by the viewer’s context. On its own, the conflict of a B-list actor trying to claw up to a higher
strata falls short due to the lack of proper on screen development, with
Brydon’s married bliss laid on a little too thick and Coogan’s moping veering
dangerously close to maudlin thanks to an intrusive piano score. It’s still
often very funny, but the dramatic beats come off as unnecessary, seeming
the chaff that should have been cut from a comedy that’s overlong at 105
minutes.

But when looking at the film as the third entry in what
I’ve dubbed the “Steve Coogan” trilogy
(which seems appropriately self-aggrandizing), The Trip transcends its comic trappings and develops a kind of quiet
melancholy. Whether it’s seeing Coogan’s sterile stainless steel loft or
watching him try to connect with his girlfriend from atop a deserted and snowy
mountain, it’s apparent that his ambition has driven him into solitude and it
hits hardest of all when you’ve been watching him for nearly a decade. Winterbottom’s
meta-narrative gave 24 Hour Party People
an edge, while Tristram and Shandy mined
the technique for knowing winks and feigned self-deprecation, but now it’s 2011
and Winterbottom doesn’t pull back anymore. Steve Coogan the
character is so interwoven with Steve Coogan the actor that you don’t know who
you’re watching and it’s then that The
Trip
’s emotional center finds real resonance. If 24 Hour Party People was his taste of glory and Tristram Shandy his struggle to hold
onto it, The Trip may be the juncture
that determines the rest of Coogan’s life. The BBC’s Alan Partridge may be the role he’s remembered for, but as far as I’m concerned, the
best character Steve Coogan has ever played is himself.

Rating: 8/10

The Trip
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon

Rating
8.0

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