On paper, this informal follow-up to Michael Winterbottom’s now cult A Cock and Bull Story - in which iconic British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon played embellished versions of themselves acting like egotistical dickheads filming a made-up costume drama - sounds like the worst kind of vanity project. A sprawling, three-hour, mini-series meander through the north of England in the company of two men, in on their own gag, and egging each other on powered solely by their own sense of smug self-satisfaction.
But Michael Winterbottom is too clever for such things, his starring duo too self-deprecating, and the whole slow-burning affair amounts to such an understated comic delight that the crying shame of it is that the director couldn’t find a Statesside outlet for it as is – instead electing to cut it almost by half and repackage it as a feature film.
The ‘plot,’ such as it is, finds Coogan accepting an offer from an upscale British magazine to tour and review a series of restaurants in the rural north of England. Eager to impress his American journo girlfriend, Mischa, he accepts with the idea that she will accompany him. But when she insists on returning to LA to look for work there Coogan (reluctantly) invites longtime friend and colleague, Rob Brydon, to tag along instead.
Across the table of many-a gourmet eatery, the somewhat oddly matched pair bicker a lot, banter back-and-forth, and generally muse on themes of male friendship and professional insecurity against a backdrop of a game of comic one-upmanship you sense has been playing out between the two for decades. It’s not quite as organic as A Cock and Bull Story, which very much gave you the sense of an idea found where as this is quite clearly an idea worked on. But the picturesque nature of it all beautifully contrasts the compulsive pettiness of the pair. At one point Coogan finds himself caught amidst a stream having misjudged a series of stepping-stones. Rather than help his friend Brydon simply stands back and announces to him: “You’re stuck in a metaphor.”
How much you enjoy The Trip will directly depend almost entirely on your affection for these two actors, and how much you enjoy the comedy of impressions, of which there are many. Some of which (Michael Caine, Al Pacino, Stephen Hawking) are, as Brydon himself remarks in quoting his own newspaper review, “stunningly accurate.” But this is far more than simply two very capable comedians overindulging themselves. Winterbottom, acutely aware of the inherent absurdity of the premise, never fails to underline the subtle snobbery on display and mine comedy from Britain’s thinly veiled class system.
The eponymous trip, you see, is exactly the kind of pompous affair Middle Class English folk indulge in as a form of masochistic mental masturbation. Since chain restaurants have never really taken root in England (it’s not a service culture), eating out usually involves trekking to some quaint little hovel where you remark “oh, what a lovely fireplace” while forking out 90 bucks a head for three mouthfuls of nouvelle cuisine before trudging over a damp, nearby hillside just so you can mutter: “Well this is nice” as you take in the ‘culture.’
With Mischa ever more distant, Coogan indulges in a series of one-night stands. Brydon, meanwhile, just misses his newborn baby and his wife, futilely trying to coax her into a round of phone sex by pleading for it in the foppish, stuttering voice of Hugh Grant. Not all the jokes land; Coogan’s recurring subplot whereby he constantly grumbles to anyone who will listen that he just wants to do big, mainstream movies with Ben Stiller – the gag, of course, being that he has – is a little forced.
The trimmed down nature of the story also sadly suffers the absence of many of the long silences, punctuated by the self-conscious sighs of two people determined to convince themselves that a wet weekend in the countryside is a sophisticated man’s Barbados. But much here is pure gold, particularly the gradual emergence of Brydon - clearly the more talented impressionist and comedian, but by far the less famous of the two – as a man far more contented with his life and comfortable in his own skin, and just how painfully aware Coogan is of it.
Starring: Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Runtime: 107 Minutes
Distributor: IFC Films
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