The Trip is a free-wheeling new comedy from director Michael Winterbottom and his regular collaborator, performer Steve Coogan. (The pair previously worked together on 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story). In this, the pair send up travel shows, putting Coogan and his acting buddy Rob Brydon (both playing themselves) on a tour through Northern England, where they spend a week sampling buzzed-about restaurants, seeing the sights, and in Steve's case, bedding random women. Amidst this, Brydon goes through being home sick and Steve wrestles with a flailing film career, a failing relationship, and his distant son partying too hard.
Originally made as a BBC television series, The Trip has been edited down to a sharp feature film, tracking the journey and the ups and downs of the two performers' friendship. Shot in a documentary style, as is often Winterbottom's trademark, the largely improvised comedy is given sense of purpose by the vacation's mission, but the real reason you'll end up watching it is the camaraderie and competition between the two leads. From the get-go, the dichotomy between the family man and the playboy is obvious, but the irony is that for as settled down as he otherwise is, Rob is the more fun and Steve has a bit of a stick up his butt. At their first stop, Rob launches into his impressions of Al Pacino, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and others, setting up an ongoing gag where Coogan feigns irritation but continually jumps in, if only to school his pal on what he thinks is a better imitation. Both are good mimics, and they riff back and forth, trying out 007 lines and in one hysterical scene, the speech of a war captain to his troops the night before the big battle. The pair also occasionally belt out joint renditions of ABBA's "The Winner Takes It All."
While this might sound like a rather slender line to hang an entire movie on, it's a surprisingly effective way to replicate what it's like to be on a real road trip with someone you know very well. The shared jokes become an escape when being trapped inside an auto makes the boys go stir crazy, and the manner in which they bandy back and forth ends up revealing their insecurities in unexpected ways. The team doesn't even take the obvious route, either, in having both men envy one another. Nope, it's just Steve that envies Rob. He wants the security that Rob gets from family and the comfort of modest success. Coogan may be more famous, but he's always chasing something. Even in his dreams, he is haunted by conversations with agents and belligerent fans. (The Trip doesn't maintain a strict documentary style; we not only see these dreams but also the opposite ends of phone conversations, including Coogan's real-life agents (or the actors playing them) and his estranged girlfriend (Margo Stilley) in America.)
Some of the stops on the map are interchangeable, but Winterbottom revels in the particular details of each one. He and cinematographer Ben Smithard take the camera back into the kitchen to see the food prepared. Some of the dishes are ludicrous, constructed to look like mini art installations. They also occasionally pan to capture other diners, and by making Coogan go outside to get cell reception--and further and further away from the hotel the deeper they get into the trip--they get a chance to shoot the countryside. Tristram Shandy fans might also appreciate that once again Winterbottom pairs Coogan with a significant literary legacy--a visit to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's home brings up interesting parallels between the dead poet and the living actor.
The Trip is a film that's appeal is so delicate and ephemeral, it's kind of hard to describe without totally deflating the tires. It's not a conventional comedy, by any means, nor is it as unfocused as, say, a home movie. It's carried more by personality than plot, and as a result, it could seem slight if you aren't willing to get into The Trip's particular groove. I found it to be fascinating and fun, thoughtful in spaces, punctuated by big laughs in others. As with any trip, you will eventually experience an eagerness to get home, and that homecoming is also a little bittersweet; what makes it so good is the feeling that you have gone along with something, that you've been a part of the experiment. It reminds me a lot of the fantastic Ewan McGregor/Charlie Boorman TV show from a couple of years ago, Long Way Round, when the old friends traveled across Europe on motorcycles and grew even closer through the shared time together. Except here, Coogan and Brydon dig under the skin a little more, finding comedy in their own foibles. It's really quite moving, and certainly more entertaining than most of the family summer vacations I took as a child, making The Trip an essential cinematic destination of the season.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.