Jun 12, 2011

The Trip

The Trip is a hilarious, but also delightfully discomfiting journey through the north of England's wintry countryside with the brilliant Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, one of the most excellent, if reluctant, comedy teams around. Coogan is supposed to be writing about fancy restaurants for The Observer and he asks Brydon to come with him, despite the fact that he spends the entire movie pretending to barely tolerate him. As they did in director Michael Winterbottom's also excellent Tristram Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story, they play themselves, but it is not entirely clear if Steve and Rob are exactly like this in reality. It's like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the layer of real versus real-but-pretend adds great richness to the journey.
The two actors are a hoot. They are both extremely funny in very different ways. Coogan plays himself as a cold, withholding, competitive, jealous, insecure narcissist with a terribly acid tongue. Brydon is sunny and cheerful but he likes to upstage Coogan. He is a compulsive entertainer and he has great one liners. He is the least horrible of the two, but he is a rather lazy explorer and not much of a risk taker, while Coogan at least likes adventure. It's bad enough when they are alone together, but it gets much worse when they are with other people. The movie is not just a collection of funny bits, but a great study in contrasting characters. No writers are listed in the credits, but I'm sure this movie was written by someone, and very well.
Brydon is a masterful mimic and he doesn't tire of making impressions of famous British and American actors, something that Coogan does equally well but decides that it is below him. They get into some hilarious dueling impersonations of famous thespians. Both have magnificent voices and since they talk a blue streak, this movie is also a feast for the ears. When Brydon recites poetry (often with someone else's voice), one remembers how beautiful the English language can be. But another interesting aspect of the movie is the investigation into the craft that their comedic talents require. They observe in painstaking detail exactly how the other actors talk and gesticulate, and it becomes clear that they are keen scientific observers of others. They are artists obsessed with their craft. But it's not all about impressions. The fact that they both converge in a Range Rover in exactly opposite periods of their lives is darkly funny too. They get on a roll with some really inspired improvised bits in the car, and Coogan gets to deliver the eulogy he would (reluctantly) give in case of Brydon's death. After all, comedy is serious business. These are two middle aged men at different points of their careers. Brydon is happily married and the father of a rosy baby, but one wonders when he chides Coogan for his freewheeling ways, and then wants to have phone sex with his wife, is he not a little jealous himself. He is, however, clearly content with his life. Coogan, divorced and still on the bachelor circuit, is miserable because he feels fame eludes him, and time is getting on. He is brutal with Brydon, but Brydon knows how to get him back where it hurts (anything mildly critical you say to a narcissist is bound to hit a raw nerve).
In the end, The Trip turns out to be a philosophical movie that explores fame, middle age, unhappiness, and friendship. Michael Nyman's melancholy music is an understated counterpoint to the hilarity. The Trip is also the most comprehensive exploration of comedic oneupmanship yet on the screen.
And how refreshing to be able to laugh heartily without vulgarity or bodily grossness. How mature! Coogan has been underused by Hollywood because he is too dry a wit and he is not an overgrown child, he is just a nasty adult (I do hope that the real one is not as bad as the one onscreen). He is justly admired by Hollywood comedians, but here they barely know what to do with him (I'm not sure that the 15 year-olds who live in our malls would get him). Brydon is a born entertainer, but he's also quite sophisticated. I think they should both stay where they are, not sell out and keep doing films together on he other side of the pond. 
The Trip was originally conceived as a series of episodes for the BBC and you can find them in You Tube, but I really recommend that you go see the whole movie if it's playing near you. It is as rich and satisfying as one of those sumptuous meals Coogan and Brydon enjoy in their trip.

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