Tribeca Film Festival 2011
By Don Simpson | June 8, 2011
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s uncanny chemistry was quite evident in Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and it only makes sense that director Michael Winterbottom would do his best to milk their personalities in a reprise performance, albeit without the ins and outs and pomp and circumstance of Laurence Sterne’s post-modern-before-there-was-modern novel. This time around, Winterbottom keeps the hyphens to a minimum and opts to ground the narrative on a singular and logical plane of existence; well, other than a few dream sequences (one featuring a brilliant cameo by Ben Stiller).
Steve (Steve Coogan) is commissioned to go road-tripping across Northern England to critique six fancifully unique restaurants for the Observer. Steve’s foodie American girlfriend, Mischa (Margo Stilley), was the original impetus behind Steve pitching this story, but she has recently returned to the U.S. to take a break from their relationship. Caught in a lurch — he does not want to do this trip solo — Steve phones Rob (Rob Brydon), a fellow thespian with whom Steve bickers and competes with non-stop. The Observer is picking up the tab for the expenses, and Steve is willing to split his wages with Rob 60/40. It is an offer that Rob cannot refuse, even if it means leaving his family behind.
Thus Steve and Rob commence their journey northward on a Monday morning. We quickly learn that Steve enjoys giving his passenger (and us) a verbal overview of all of the roads he will be taking to their next destination. (Steve also points out that he prefers traditional maps over GPS “sat maps”.) As soon as they hit the misty moors, Steve turns on his preordained soundtrack of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” — a music choice that Rob does not think suits their surroundings, but it does serve to bind this film to another in Winterbottom’s oeuvre that also featured Coogan and Brydon, 24 Hour Party People. (You did not really expect Winterbottom to completely keep the meta at bay, did you?)
Together, Steve and Rob traverse painterly landscapes that one couldn’t paint — well, one could but it would not be the same — and visit the homes of renowned poets such as Coldridge and Wordsworth as well as other poetically historic landmarks such as Bolton Abbey. The shoddy-at-best cell phone reception in the desolate moors makes Steve’s endless tug-o-war with his agents to pave the path towards acting success all that more difficult. At 44-years old (or he has been 41-years old for the last three years), Steve’s separation with Mischa, strained relationship with his son, and the declining state of his acting career (he claims that he has lost countless roles to Michael Sheen) weigh heavily on him; so Steve contends with his mid-life existential crises by bedding beautiful women, drinking often, and getting stoned (according to Steve, “most creative people smoke marijuana or hash”). Rob, on the other hand, is a happily devoted husband and father, who seems perfectly content with the state of his career.
Road movies, buddy movies, foodie reality television shows — as Rob says, “it’s 2010, everything has been done before, all you can do is do it again, but better.” But what has not been done before (at least not that I know of) is a combination road movie-buddy movie-foodie reality television show, and that is what Winterbottom sets out to do. But that is also somewhat deceiving, because even though Winterbottom shows us fleeting bits of back of the house food preparation, and allows the restaurants to announce each of their beautifully realized dishes to Steve and Rob (and therefore to us), The Trip is not actually about the food. Instead, the gorgeous restaurants and their culinary creations (such as a green alcoholic beverage that Rob compares to a “childhood garden”) are utilized as a unique backdrop for some brilliant bits of purely improvised comedy. (Note: no one is credited as the writer of The Trip.) Sometimes a particular food will trigger a tangential conversation for a while, but the talk always seems to return back to Steve and Rob attempting to one-up each other with dueling impressions (of Michael Caine, Richard Burton, Al Pacino, Woody Allen and various James Bonds), reciting poetry, and riffing upon various permutations of made up dialogue (such as an epic pep talk before an epic battle, “To bed, gentlemen, for at daybreak we rise!”). The absurd banter is relentless — as Steve comments to Rob, “It’s really exhausting keeping all of this going, isn’t it?” — and often careens into becoming uncomfortably mean-spirited. That said; it is perfectly clear that these “bumless chums” actually do care for each other, they might even admire each other’s work. They just do not want to share a bed — or even a hotel room — no matter how large it is.
Steve is a bit too narcissistic and patronizing for my comedic tastes (that is also the only fault I have with the otherwise pitch-perfect Tristam Shandy), even though it is often done for ironic effect. For example, Steve does not think well of actors and comedians who rely on impressions beyond the age of 40 — a position that is purposely patronizing towards Rob, but loses significantly more weight each time Steve does an impression. Steve, who is from Manchester, also takes a few digs at Rob’s home country of Wales, repeatedly stating that Northern England has as unique an identity as Wales does.
The Trip originally ran in Britain as a six-episode series for BBC and the theatrical version is a concatenated version of that series. Several critics have already noted that the relentless abrasiveness of Steve and Rob’s bickering is better served in small doses, making the six-episode BBC series sound a bit more appetizing. Being that Winterbottom is serving the United States the whole enchilada in one 107 minute sitting is a curiosity to me. Tristam Shandy did not do well in the U.S. theaters (taking in a mere $1.25 million), and I do not see how The Trip will be any more appealing to American theater-goers. I, for one, enjoyed The Trip; but I often find myself in the minority when it comes to Winterbottom (I saw Tristam Shandy on opening weekend in Manhattan in an otherwise empty theater; I gave The Killer Inside Me a very positive review).