There are a lot of experiments in Michael Winterbottom’s latest film, The Trip. The two main actors, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, play themselves. The movie is an edit of a six episode serial that originally played on BBC2 in the UK, and was partially improvised. And large parts of it are made up of imitations, “silly voices”, and jabs that will leave you guessing whether they’re good-natured, or passive-aggressively malicious. Put all of this in the context of a road trip and you can be certain it will be interesting if nothing less.
It is compelling to consider that both Coogan and Bryd0n worked with Winterbottom on his 2002 film, 24 Hour Party People. Since then, Coogan has made an admirable run at making it big in Hollywood. Currently, and unfortunately, he’s fading from mainstream memory and his hopes of making a permanent presence are mostly dashed. Whereas Bryd0n has been creating a strong forward momentum for himself in the UK and continues as an actor, comedian, and radio and television presence.
Such are the characters we see on screen in The Trip. Coogan has accepted an assignment from The Observer to review six restaurants in northern England. Originally, Coogan’s girlfriend was meant to accompany him. Through a series of transatlantic phone calls, romantic trouble is hinted at, but not explained, and she is in New York instead. Coogan ends up bringing Brydon, an acquaintance, not so much a friend it seems. Coogan is endlessly speaking with agents on both sides of the pond. He makes no qualms of explaining to his travel companion how he wishes to be an auteur (one has to wonder where Hamlet 2 falls into this), working with great directors. He even has a fantasy dream where Ben Stiller sings his praises and lists all the A-list directors wanting to work with him. He looks down on Brydon, always behind a thin mask of humor and sarcasm, for his “low-brow” career, and explains his willingness to sacrifice family for career, protesting just a bit too much considering Brydon is happily married with a child. It’s unclear where the line is between these two characters on screen, and who they are in real life. And that’s part of the fun.
Of course, as road trips usually do, the setting facilitates an atmosphere that encourages Coogan and Brydon to philosophize and look inward, or rather encourages the audience to do so. Backdropped by endless courses of food that seem to be too imaginative for their own good–in one restaurant, they’re served lollipops made of duck fat and peanuts. Neither of the two ever seem to have much to say about the food other than quips like, “the consistency is a bit like snot,” or, referring to tomato soup, “it’s very tomato-y.” They prefer to do competing, and often hilarious, imitiations of the likes of Sean Connery, Hugh Grant, and Michael Caine.
The ridiculousness of the food, and the situation, set in bold face the ridiculousness of Coogan and his seemingly unobtainable ambitions. If Coogan, with his endless jokes and somewhat amenable companionship, is slowly exposed as something other than what he originally presents, the same can be considered of Brydon. Considering whether he’s as footloose and fancy free, and as unaffected by insult or injury as he pretends to be proves to be just as interesting.
That line between actor and person gets smaller and smaller until it finally disappears as the film approaches its finale. It’s here that Winterbottom makes what seems to be his only glaring mistake. The careful consideration the audience has been investing in these two characters (of which, wondering about its accuracy is most of the fun) needs no longer be left up to the imagination. A heavily melancholic score (music you’ll recognize from Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca) sees the two men separate at the end of the trip and return to their homes. One to his empty, sterile, high-rise apartment, the other home to a somewhat pedestrian, home-cooked meal, and to the open arms of a wife and child. The sadness and the funniness of the situation did not need to be spelled out, and it leaves a slightly bad taste at the end of a very delicious meal.