Laughing through dinner with two comic geniuses is an appealing prospect, but investing in their plights is a bit trickier. The Trip, originally a six-episode BBC miniseries, has been chopped up into a feature-length film for American audiences, and the results are simultaneously hilarious and underwhelming. Watching stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (playing exaggerated versions of themselves) discuss their careers, death, awards, and do a number of celebrity impressions over some of the finest eating in England is quite funny, but neither of the actors, nor director Michael Winterbottom, are able to successfully dig very deep into the characters, turning to unnecessary devices to try to turn nothing into something when it comes to a story.
Coogan has been enlisted by The Observer to go around to a number of fine restaurants and review the dining experience. His original plan was to bring Mischa (Margo Stilley), a foodie and his current girlfriend, in order to smooth out a few wrinkles in their relationship, but she's off in America looking for work. Having exhausted all other options, Coogan turns to Brydon, his sort-of-friend (perhaps from their previous film Tristram Shandy -- no sign of whether the two Winterbottom films inhabit the same pseudo-reality), who agrees. The duo load their luggage into a Range Rover and set off across the country for a week of Brydon annoying Coogan, over the course of many courses.
The heart of the film is the dinner discussion between the two actors, and it is very, very funny. The pair's dueling Michael Caines and Woody Allens have made the viral rounds, but the film holds at least three more wonderful discussions: about why cinematic underdog armies always leave at daybreak (as opposed to "about 9:30"), theoretical eulogizing (both express disappointment that Brydon will be too dead to do his trademark "Man in a Box" routine at his wake), and whether one would allow their child to become temporarily sick in order to win an award (an Oscar maybe, but not a BAFTA). The effectiveness of these conversations is two-fold, giving the audience insight onto the nature of a comedy, and an effective peek at the philosophical beliefs and neuroses of the characterized version of both actors (Brydon more the former than the latter). Food nuts may be a little disappointed that the pair's dining isn't really spotlighted (you hear and see what the two order, but rarely get any commentary on it), but prioritizing the comedy over the food is a reasonable sacrifice.
At the same time, Winterbottom strives to turn Coogan into a real character, and it doesn't really take. Coogan calls Mischa during most of the stops, but their uneasy, extremely subtle sparring quickly becomes tedious, and Coogan's other actions over the course of the trip, towards Brydon and towards others, doesn't allow for much sympathy when he's sad or lonely. Winterbottom also shows us Mischa, in shots that are so cramped and limited that it only emphasizes how much little information they provide; if the character is meant to be distant and separated from Coogan, it'd be better if she was merely a voice on the other end of the phone. Alternative options appear: Coogan calls his son, and forms more of a connection in five minutes than Winterbottom musters in twenty with Mischa, and the Observer reporter who organized the trip drops in on one of the stops. Either one of these threads could've been effectively subbed in instead (especially the reporter, who could show up every once in awhile to alter Coogan and Brydon's dynamic, and be conveniently "working" or planning otherwise).
The combination of Winterbottom's directorial style further complicates the tone of Coogan's character. Although the film doesn't need to be as overtly exaggerated as Coogan's two neurotic dream sequences, Coogan plays his acidic character with a level of dryness that's already toeing the line before Winterbottom's icy, emotionless direction adds to the mixture. Clearly, Coogan's caricature of himself is in the same vein as any self-skewering "meta" comedy, but The Trip often completely obscures the line between "truthful" setup and "exaggerated" punchline. Is the viewer meant to sympathize with the film's version of Coogan completely as a film character, or is The Trip a wicked, witty look at the real Coogan, and is it even possible to tell one approach from the other if the viewer doesn't know where one ends and the other begins? In the dinner vignettes, where "motives" don't even come into play, The Trip is very funny, but when the film steps outside these lines, the experience leaves something to be desired.
IFC offers The Trip in packaging that reflects the theatrical poster, with dirty plates Photoshopped to look like Coogan and Brydon on the back cover. As usual, there is no insert in the transparent standard DVD case, and nothing printed on the reverse of the cover to show through on the inside...what a waste.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, IFC's transfer of The Trip is a pretty perfect standard-definition presentation. The image looks slightly soft, whites blow out from time to time, and there's interlacing/motion-blurring, but both appear to be inherent to the film's consumery-looking digital cinematography. If there are any real issues going on, they're well-compressed and hidden. As for the audio, most comedies susbsist primarily on dialogue, and this film is no different, frequently presenting nothing more than the pure production audio, complete with the natural effects of the acoustics in each location. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also included.
As mentioned in the review, The Trip was originally broadcast in the UK as a six-episode miniseries. The vaguely odd thing about the extras here is how no explicit reference to this fact is made, despite all of the extras heavily indicating the original format. A somewhat dry making of (11:59) is divided by "episodes." The disc also includes a massive 1:41:55 worth of deleted scenes, and it's not quite clear whether these are legitimate deleted scenes, or just the remaining show content that didn't make the film cut. The majority could be the latter, but at just past the halfway point, the remainder of the scenes are all alternate takes of the "about 9:30" scene. In any case, the deleted scenes are actually arranged by subject, grouping together the duo's running experience with wine, or doing commercial voice-over for fictional BBC1 programming. Much of this material is very good, although I found a series of somewhat random career anecdotes to the best (Brydon demands Coogan justify Percy Jackson, followed by Coogan doing his best Arnold Schwarzenegger from the set of Around the World in 80 Days). There's also one truly heartbreaking moment where Brydon really comes down on Coogan, with a short, simple observation, and a musical number seen in the behind-the-scenes footage that's very Monty Python. "Rob Pics and Climbing Footage" (1:28), 12:45 of Food Cut from the picture, and a poster gallery with eight alternate one-sheet designs round out the extras.
On the whole, it's a toss-up -- I wasn't really moved by the non-deleted scene extras, so perhaps IFC would've been better off trying to configure some sort of branching version that allowed the viewer to select the film or the TV edit. Maybe that would be prohibitively complicated, but I'd certainly take that over the remainder of what was included here.
Trailers for Super, Cold Weather, Flypaper, and Tabloid play before the main menu. The original theatrical trailer for The Trip is also included.
Although sometimes the comedy is so weaved from dry execution and threads of reality it's hard to know if you're even supposed to laugh, the heart of the film is a series of dinners and diversions with two very funny performers, whose discussions dig at deeper truth. In addition to the feature, the disc contains over 90 minutes of "deleted scenes" likely comprising the rest of the original miniseries, making this disc an easy recommendation for fans of Coogan, Brydon, or British comedy in general.
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