Tuesday, May 24, 2011

SIFF — The Trip

The Trip
U.K., 2010
SIFF's page

My love of British comedy is well documented. So it was a sure bet that I'd make a point to catch British comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon once again playing fictionalized versions of themselves  (after 2006's hit-or-miss self-referential Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, again with director Michael Winterbottom). As ever, Steve Coogan (rather, "Steve Coogan") wears lugubrious angst like an up-market rain jacket. Meanwhile, his relaxed, contented friend Brydon again reminds me that I need to look up more of his work.

The Trip is cut together from a six-episode sitcom that aired on BBC2 last fall. Its premise couldn't be simpler: The Observer contracts Coogan to take a culinary road trip through North England's scenic Lake District, Lancashire, and Yorkshire Dales, specifically the remarkably posh restaurants that dot the rolling countryside hamlets there. With his girlfriend in the U.S. (they're "on a break"), Coogan recruits Brydon — long-time friend, colleague, and personality counterpoint — to keep him company.

From there the film's necessarily episodic structure sets the comic duo free to improvise badinage, one-up and poke at each other, and jockey their vocal impressions in competition (various Sean Connerys and Bond villains, Al Pacino, Woody Allen, and most famously Michael Caine). They extemporize on their careers, their aging, their relative celebrity (Brydon's is currently up while Coogan's has flatlined, which gnaws at him relentlessly), and the collision of Coogan's lofty self-image and aspirations toward art-film success in Hollywood with his callow, uneasy relationship with success and people, including himself.

Comparisons with My Dinner with Andre are inevitable and valid. The Trip simply adds wheels and landscapes with ancient rock walls and herds of sheep, plus of course British humor often as sharp as a fine cheddar. Calling it a British Sideways wouldn't be far off the mark either.

The first hour delivers enough chuckles and fold-over-funny bits to convince us to follow these two anywhere. (Although "Oh no! We're two men in a hotel room with just one bed!" is an old set-up that's thuddingly out of sorts with the fresher material here.) The scene driving through the venerable terrain in the Range Rover, improvising mock kingly dialogue for a BBC historical drama ("Gentlemen, to bed, for we leave at 9:30!" "-ish." -Ish!") will go down as one of this decade's high points in screen funny.

As they dine on fashionably rococo haute cuisine it's clear that neither Coogan nor Brydon knows nor concerns himself much about the often puzzling foodie-wonk delicacies placed before them. (Lollipops "made out of duck fat — why not?") We can simply imagine what The Observer will eventually receive in return for its expense account.

Besides Brydon, Coogan's other (and more vexing) traveling companion — indeed, his most intimate relationship — is his enormous load of anxieties. He carries his wounded-diva narcissism on the surface, and the film's second half does turn the dial up on the underlying poignancy of Coogan's insecurities and mid-life/mid-career trepidations. As Coogan tries to favorably compare himself with Coleridge while on the poet's old turf, even he must see that any resemblance is just wishful thinking. When he beds comely hotel staff in between apprehensive phone calls to his (clearly moving on) girlfriend overseas, we sense that it's less to slake an old swaggering laddish hedonism than it is to prove to himself that his stalled celebrity image is still relevant to somebody somewhere. By the time he puts in a call to his young son to talk about arranging a visit, the plays toward sentiment and pathos feel appliquéd on rather than sincere and natural.

At around the half-way mark, as I began to realize that nothing much was happening here, the film gradually acquired a case of the same-old-same-olds with its nearly unwavering tone and pitch and some recapitulated laughs (such as redundant celebrity impressions). While foisting a story throughline or character arc onto such a freewheeling format would feel intrusive, this theatrical version of The Trip began to feel like what it is: an assemblage pared down from longer material that probably flowed better in six installments televised at weekly intervals.

Soon, though, I got over myself and began to enjoy the movie even more once I embraced the obvious fact that "the plot" isn't even close to The Trip's aim and purpose, and it's a relief that nobody along the way tried to tack-hammer one onto the daily production pages.

Instead, we get a fine, funny study of a friendship, two mates who need each other as counterweights, or maybe as reflective surfaces. Coogan, at least, has found in affable, satisfied Brydon a genuine friend willing to put up with his slings and arrows and tragedian woes. In Brydon, as opposed to his soon-to-be-ex girlfriend or the transitory dalliances along the way or his quote-bellowing fans, Coogan has a true companion willing to laugh with him in their little petty contests, who lets Coogan's drama-queen sensitivities and dissatisfactions roll off his own impervious happiness. Water, duck's back, and the duck's just fine with that.

The pastoral English country scenery is lovely, as you'd expect, all green hills and misty vistas. The stops at hotel restaurants left my mouth set for meals more succulent than theater popcorn. Winterbottom frames it all attractively and unobtrusively, not getting in the way of his leads after winding them up and letting them go.

Coogan and Brydon are a natural Odd Couple pairing with a true-to-life rapport. The parts may be better than the whole, but The Trip is funny enough often enough to please Britcom fans such as myself.