Like a spicier version of My Dinner with Andre, Michael Winterbottom’s slice of life road comedy The Trip follows actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they go on a restaurant jaunt over the English countryside, dining on delectable morsels and doing impersonations. The numerous funny voices and jokes are certainly what make the film appealing, and they often are very amusing, but the more melancholy underside of the film lies in Coogan’s flailing depression. His relationship is on the rocks, and the numerous one-night stands he has while away don’t seem to console him. Further, while it’s easy to make fun of Brydon for being a sell-out, his domestic bliss and happiness with his relative success leave Coogan envious. He just tries to mask it with condescension.
The premise is great, about a man who masks his sorrow in humor and self-defeat, but it’s unfortunately not given a strong enough emphasis. The “serious” moments are off-set by a solemn change in the score to indicate that what’s happening on-screen is sad. Every time Coogan treks out into a field or on top of a hill to get in touch with his girlfriend (they have trouble communicating, get it?), it’s like the movie coasts for a bit on momentum. There’s the expansive landscapes, the gray sky to add heft to these scenes, but the repetition comes across as so much overkill. It would have sufficed to allow the character to suffer a large-scale scuffle with his girlfriend at the start of the film, then soak in worry from that point forward; it might have made for a smoother ride overall, but perhaps the repetition comes from the fact that the film was edited from a BBC television series – the small-screen version of which probably had to reiterate its plot for new viewers.
When the fabric of Coogan’s discomfited state intertwine with the comedy are when the film is at its best. The two actors competing to see who can do the best Michael Caine impersonation, while entertaining, don’t carry the same weight as the moment when a museum’s cashier gushes over Brydon’s “Small Man in a Box” routine, Coogan looking on incredulously then subsequently trying to imitate his friend when alone. The men consuming dozens of courses of bizarre foods, some of which I have to assume were just jokes themselves, is funny as they make quips about each of the items brought to the table. When the waiter describes a plate of scallops as “resting on a bed of baby greens”, Brydon goes off on a tangent about the lack of resting the scallops can possibly be doing since they are dead and shudders at the thought of simmering in your own juices. But what’s more moving is when the two stand in a cemetery, imagining how they would deliver the eulogies at each other’s funerals. There’s the requisite amount of barbs thrown in, but at some level there’s an affection there. Though Coogan often comes across as ungrateful for his friend, he’s quick to point out that he’d never put the proverbial knife in his heart, though “I might tickle you with it a bit.”
And so it goes. The two continue their travels, laughing with one another in the car and taking the scenic route because, well, why not? They sit outside at breakfast and consider hypothetical questions: would you give your child a painful (but curable!) disease if you could win an Academy Award? Hmm… let me think about that one. The two friends sometimes annoy one another, and they do each have their own lives to tend to – when Coogan climbs mountains, Brydon lies in bed and grins while talking to his wife – but the trip is less a chance to eat expensive foods and see the country, more a chance to be in the company of one another. When Coogan thinks he’s reached a point where he wants to be alone, a doppelganger of himself appears to show him just how difficult he himself is to get along with.
My wife compared the film to Withnail & I. While this film lacks the wackiness at the heart of Bruce Robinson’s classic, there are similarities. Marwood, the protagonist of Robinson’s film, continues to stand beside his friend no matter how much dirt gets shoveled on him. In a similar fashion, no matter how badly Coogan denigrates his friend for choosing to revel in what he deems mediocrity, Brydon understands the secret acknowledgment that he’s in need of an outlet for his frustrations at this moment – and he does the only thing he knows how to in an attempt to cheer his pal’s spirits: more impressions. Why did you do that voice, Coogan asks, after his traveling partner recites a bit of a poem in a strange accent. Brydon notes that he felt the atmosphere of the surroundings and chose a voice that he felt was appropriate for it. In the larger scheme of things, Brydon notes the atmosphere that his host is presenting and chooses a “voice” to go along with it, that of the eternally optimistic, understanding friend.
“You’re stuck in a metaphor!” Brydon shouts from a bridge as Coogan attempts to cross a pathway over slippery rocks in a river. Indeed. While life rushes at him, he tries to keep steady and maintain his balance, but it’s difficult; he’s lucky to have somebody there who does understand what he needs, who can keep an eye on him from a safe place and make light of the situation to remove the weight of the metaphor. It’s easier to fall in the water when there’s somebody there to laugh with you about what just happened than it is when you’re all alone, and cold, and shivering.
The Trip is an fantastic journey, led by two charismatic individuals who are very funny, and the subtle balance between regret and elation is spectacular. When the balance is broken, when the themes get in your face, are when everything becomes harder to swallow. As with any recipe, the flavor is richest when the ingredients are mixed to just the right consistency. But if you add too much water, it’ll never thicken.