Edited together by director Michael Winterbottom from the 6-episode BBC comedy of the same name, The Trip stars Steve Coogan and frequent co-star and collaborator Rob Brydon as versions of themselves. When Coogan is hired by The Observer newspaper to take a trip through Northern England sampling the finest restaurants along the way, he envisions a romantic week impressing his American girlfriend, but he’s forced at the last minute to go instead for Plan B – friend and rival Brydon – when the girlfriend decides they need time apart. What follows is an episodic but hilarious road trip as the two odd-couple comedians see the sights, eat the food, discuss Coleridge, argue and compete with one another to see who can do the best impression of Michael Caine.
Funny as it is, and it’s definitely funny, what really drives The Trip is the deep current of melancholy and self-loathing that runs through Coogan’s character and quietly comes to the fore as the story goes along. He’s prickly from the very start, but it gradually becomes clear that he is a man filled with a quiet panic over his moribund career, his cratering romance and perhaps the cold fear that his life is turning out to be a disappointment. Through it all, he can never let down his guard, drop his sense of competition and reach out to his friend Brydon, the one man who probably understands him. Despite day after day of beautiful scenery and some of the best food in the country – all on someone else’s dime – Coogan can never just relax and enjoy himself.
Coogan is one of those comedians, unique almost to the British, who isn’t afraid to come across looking like a jerk. There’s a mean spiritedness to his humor, but it’s so obviously defensive and he so often winds up looking the uncomfortable fool that you feel sorry for him. Brydon on the other hand is his perfect compliment. While he’s openly competitive, he’s also always good natured. Brydon’s humor is softer and more gentle. If Coogan is a porcupine, then Brydon is a puppy and it’s this combination of opposites that gives The Trip a perfect comic balance.
The best parts of The Trip simply involve Coogan and Brydon riffing on their surroundings and on each other, each trying to one up the other with jokes and impressions. This is bone dry, improvisational comedy that feels like an inside joke, but one you’re in on. The story is loose and rambling and episodic, but it has a momentum and it finally works. What emerges is not just comedy, but a kind of sad character sketch of a man who should be enjoying the time of his life yet can’t. Coogan is a contradiction where the instincts that drive him to succeed also lead him toward self destruction.
So, is The Trip a comedy or is it a character drama? It turns out it’s both and it works surprisingly well. Hilarious throughout, there’s also an underlying edge that gets stronger as the story goes along. The laughs make it all go down easily, but it’s the final sting that sticks with you after it’s over.
The Trip. UK 2010 (US release 2011). Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Cinematography by Ben Smithard. Music by Michael Nyman. Edited by Mags Arnold and Paul Monaghan. Starring Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Margo Stilley, Rebecca Johnson, Dolya Gavans and Kerry Shale. 1 hour 47 minutes. Not rated by the MPAA. 4 stars (out of 5)
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