The Trip‘s primary, or perhaps ideal, audience may be comprised of frequent adherents of the Top Chef and aficionados of wry British wit. Michael Winterbottom’s film spends most of its time with its two stars, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, but the acclaimed director is playing loose enough here that he feels safe sneaking off to the kitchens of its high-dining establishments to depict the culinary process before revealing the fruits of the cooks’ labors as both comedians demonstrate a low propensity for articulate food criticism. In fact, I feel secure enough to allow for a hypothesis: if, while you are watching The Trip, you are not laughing, then you are salivating. Depending on which endeavor you’re more inclined toward, your mileage may vary in either category.
Winterbottom’s picture began life as a TV series on BBC Two, and for reasons which at present I cannot quite fathom he elected to edit the whole thing down into just under two hours so as to release it for consumption in the US. Maybe I don’t appreciate the thought driving his decision, but I can’t say that I regret whatever compelled him to ship his meta-comedy-gourmand-road-trip tale to his American fans in such a tightly knit but also incredibly relaxed, composed package. The Trip is stupendous, understated but uproarious in its self-deprecating and dry humors while serving as a legitimate showcase for the talents of both Brydon and Coogan not simply as comedians but as actors, though wisely Winterbottom keeps emotional truth and catharsis at arm’s length in favor of comedy.
Given that its stars play themselves, The Trip could well be accused of having delusions of pretentious grandeur to a point. Maybe there’s something to that; Brydon and Coogan are both playing versions of themselves instead of wholly fictitious characters (in point of fact, the same versions they portrayed in Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock-and-Bull Story), which I suppose lends itself to a certain level of scrutiny of the film’s motivations. But this isn’t an act of vanity; the key to all of this is that they’re only versions, not the men themselves. I don’t disallow for the possibility that the existential and artistic crises Coogan experiences throughout the movie may have some rooting in reality (the best fictions usually have some truth to them, I’m told), but The Trip has too healthy a sense of humor about its characters, specifically Coogan, for that idea to fully germinate. (The film’s final moment should blow away any such notions as well.)
The film’s basic conceit is simple. Coogan, preparing to leave on assignment for The Observer to tour a number of high-profile restaurants in northern England, invites Brydon to join him on his journey. Why Brydon? Everyone else was busy, it seems. We learn Steve intended to bring his foodie American girlfriend along to impress her, but she decided their relationship needed a break and returned to the US; hence, Coogan turns to Rob, and a contemporary British odd couple is formed. Rob’s a congenial sort and a family man who enjoys strong recognition within Britain (compared to Coogan’s more internationally recognized star), but prone to excessive displays of celebrity impressions, the sort of thing that could easily be vexing in the right (wrong?) circumstances. Coogan, by contrast, has an eye-rolling “over it” temperament. He’s keen on being seen as edgy, highbrow, and “artistic” in that bold, tiresome, important sense. Naturally, their relationship is somewhat prickly. Coogan takes every opportunity to burn Rob as Rob simply tries to get along and bond with his colleague.
The Trip has a lot going for it; apart from the back-and-forth between its two incredibly quick and instinctively funny leads, the film takes us on as much of a voyage through the countryside of northern England as it does Rob and Steve. Winterbottom’s chosen his locations very carefully, cherry-picking some truly spectacular vistas of the English countryside before interrupting our reverie with cutting banter. The landscape practically becomes as much a characters in the film as Rob and Steve, though we largely see this part of Britain through the way they interact with it. In a way, Rob is the audience surrogate in these moments– he’s just as happy to sit quietly and savor the majesty of the lands around him while Steve establishes his genius by prattling on about the geographical history of the region. If Rob’s penchant for mimicking Al Pacino and Woody Allen grows grating after a time, Steve’s need to show off his intellect at every turn is almost instantaneously insufferable.
But in its fashion, that’s all part of their respective charms and often what leads them into battles of one-upmanship throughout their sojourn. As comedians are wont to do, Steve and Rob frequently engage in competition over, well, anything they fancy but mostly impersonations and their respective work as funnymen. Their barbs with one another contain the bulk of The Trip‘s laughs, unsurprisingly, as both Brydon and Coogan are mercurial in their witticisms and play well together in such fashion that they almost appear to be improvising constantly. They’re so natural together that it’s easy to imagine Winterbottom surreptitiously filming the two of them without their knowledge during a backstage bickering and editing the footage into the finished movie.
Hidden (in plain sight) among their squabbling is the undeniably human element of The Trip that makes it so noteworthy an offering. Between argumentation over who does the better Michael Caine impression, and discourse over the plates of food they enjoy as part of Steve’s assignment (moments which quickly establish both men as being grossly under-qualified for critiquing high-concept dining fare), The Trip is really about success and happiness– which, Winterbottom seems to imply, one mines from love and family moreso than the throes stardom, a message the director presents with a refreshingly matter-of-fact face by contrasting Rob, the lovingly sweet family man whose talents appeal to the middle road, with Steve, who claims he wants to be taken seriously as an actor but secretly cares far more about his failing relationships (with his girlfriend, his ex-wife, his son) than his career. Just as Steve’s snide and cutting remarks are meant to turn aside any suspicion about his true feelings, though, so too does The Trip wield humor as a guise to conceal its very human heart.