June 9, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: The Trip

by Vadim Rizov

The Trip

The Trip is a lightly plotted comedy travelogue whose six half-hour BBC episodes have lost 50 minutes to make a digestible 111-minute feature. Most of the running time features Steve Coogan and decade-plus collaborator Rob Brydon riffing at will during a six-day road trip. (The two also played mock versions of themselves in 2005's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, directed by Michael Winterbottom, again behind the camera here.) The destinations are dictated by food: Coogan's been invited to write up his culinary journey for The Observer, despite not knowing the first thing about the recently emerged high cuisine offered in otherwise obscure Northern English villages. With girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley) in New York City and their relationship on indeterminate hiatus, a callowly broken-up Coogan sets out with replacement companion Brydon to eat at a number of astonishingly upscale rural pubs and restaurants.

It's a journey that would have been inconceivable 20 years ago, when standards of British cuisine were cheap and shoddy: in her book The Anglo Files, American journalist Sarah Lyall recalls being horrified by a breakfast in the mid-90s where a breakfast tray was left outside her door "the night before [...] a carton of milk and two slices of buttered white bread cut into triangles (and wrapped in coming-off cling film)." No longer: the places Coogan and Brydon eat are real, their website addresses included in the press kit. One is L'Enclume, where the duo gamely make their way through an extensive tasting menu; the website lists three such meals, starting at £69, in a village (Cartmel, Cumbria) populated by an estimated 1500 people. It's a changed world of culinary options dotted in otherwise towns whose buildings and roads appear not to have changed since the '30s.

The Trip

Though the restaurants are taken seriously, with brief kitchen shots of earnest men plating one elaborate dish after another, the food porn factor is light; much more time is spent filming the countryside. Despite momentary skits of "Steve Coogan" acting like a rude, self-centered idiot, most of The Trip is jocular fun. Both men love the terrain, sincerely comparing the foggy view from a ferry to the paintings of J.M.W. Turner and declaiming Wordsworth at the sites that inspired his poems. Coogan and Brydon's shared cultural inheritance is Romantic poetry and painting, BBC jingles, and many hours of popular movies on TV, whose performers remind them of their own relative lack of global fame.

In stubbornly provincial terms, Manchester born and raised Coogan insists North England could be its own country, an assertion the Welsh Brydon isn't having. Mostly they stick to common reference points present in both their geographically disparate upbringings. Brydon's a relentless impressionist; he and his companion occasionally face off to see who can do a better Michael Caine or Woody Allen. They talk about British actors who attained nearly-equal fame in the US: Caine, Richard Burton, Michael Sheen (himself a Tony Blair impressionist in The Queen). Coogan obsesses over his failure to crack the American market: his only recognition comes in dreams, as Ben Stiller tells him how all the auteurs (Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson) and mainstream successes (the Farrelly brothers!) want him. For a comic like him, there's no form of self-flagellation quite so galling as recognition from another, much more successful colleague.

The Trip

The trivial plot arc has Coogan wondering whether or not to go to America to both stay with Mischa and keep plugging away at an American film career, a battle he's effectively lost already (his most recognizable roles were in the shamelessly bad A Night at the Museum movies and Tropic Thunder, where he's unceremoniously sacrificed for a gag early on). The film simplifies the successful-hollow-man vs. modestly-prominent-family-man dynamic shamelessly: Coogan stares emptily through his gorgeous apartment's sliding door out to a relentlessly bleak, underdeveloped area while Brydon returns home to his suburban wife and child in a featureless area much like the one where Coogan's parents (visited briefly) still live, far from their rootless son, entrenched in solid British values of medium-scaled ambitions.

Heavy-handed as it could be, The Trip believes in a fundamentally decent country full of majestic scenery and historic ruins, underpinned by a strong poetic tradition. There are undeniable tourist pleasures to be had in the lovingly filmed landscape, with two pleasantly skeptical visitors who regard what's around them not as a sightseer's marvel but as their casual birthright. The small-town atmosphere doesn't always overwhelm them: they note that their first stop looks like a place where a "Miss Marple" mystery might be shot. Mostly, we see two people driving and enjoying each other's company but pretending they don't. Coogan's a famously prickly comedian, whose persona often relies on his own or others' discomfort; watching him crack up for real every now and then makes the film sweet, regardless of the downbeat finale.



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Posted by ahillis at June 9, 2011 11:30 AM