ByTowne ByTowne Cinema
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Good meals. Fine whines.
In contrast to Roger Corman’s 1967 freakout, The Trip, no hallucinogens are harmed in the Michael Winterbottom comedy of the same title, a British road movie laced with lacerating laughs and starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Mr. Coogan does, in fact, smoke a joint, lighting up in the same house where Coleridge wrote ‘Dejection: An Ode’ and indulged in opium, the soporific that enslaved him in ‘humiliation and debasement.’ Mr. Coogan has made a career partly by riffing on narcissism and he’s in fine self-loving form, as is Mr. Brydon. For one man, the humiliation of choice here is fame (with a debasement chaser), while for the other it’s his incessant vocal mugging. Both give you a contact high.
The duo’s dueling funnymen routine will be familiar if you’ve seen Mr. Winterbottom’s earlier film Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story, or were in Britain last fall and caught The Trip when it was a six-part BBC2 television series. To rewind: Mr. Coogan accepts a gig from The Observer of London to review six restaurants in northern England. He plans to take his girlfriend, but is forced, with demonstrable reluctance, to ask Mr. Brydon instead. Straightaway, the two friendly combatants are motoring out of London in a Range Rover, maps and gags at the ready.
As in many road movies, the trip becomes an occasion for philosophizing, a journey inward and out as the men joust and parry, improvising and entertaining each other, at times by imitating, hilariously, someone else (Michael Caine, Sean Connery). They also eat, of course, often and well, dining in restaurants where the rooms and service are hushed and the dishes extravagantly conceptualized and prepared. (With The Observer paying, money isn’t an issue.) There are gardens of vegetables, oceans of seafood, a veritable abattoir of meat. At the Cumbrian restaurant L’Enclume (one Michelin star), the near-parodic haute and low offerings include lollipops ‘made out of duck fat with peanuts’ (‘Why not?’ Mr. Coogan muses) and some foamy pea-green ick made from mallow, ginger beer and whiskey and served in a martini glass.
’The consistency,’ Mr. Coogan says after braving a sip, ‘is a bit like snot.’ Pause. ‘But it tastes great.’
In between the truffle ravioli and Burgundy, the vocal caricatures and Lake District landscapes, Mr. Coogan and Mr. Brydon goad each other with prickly jokes and smiled insults all while comparing their successes, reciting poetry and walking the moors, as well as an occasional tightrope. Sometimes the camaraderie edges into aggression that is soon snuffed out with laughter. Mr. Coogan’s stated desire to act for film-art ‘auteurs,’ is one well-chewed bone they tug at, as is Mr. Brydon’s populist appeal. Since they worked with Mr. Winterbottom in his 2002 film 24 Hour Party People, Mr. Brydon has continued to blow up bigger in Britain, while Mr. Coogan’s Hollywood future has dimmed (his star turn in Around The World In 80 Days went nowhere), developments that give The Trip a sting of truth.
Oh, how Mr. Coogan aches for celebrity. Or at least that’s what his on-screen character yearns for. It’s unclear which is which, who is who, and that’s part of the journey – the destination too. To the extent that the man at the wheel (Mr. Coogan) and the guy riding shotgun (Mr. Brydon) are playacting is a question that Mr. Winterbottom and his stars enjoyably bat around. Does it matter where a performer ends and the persona begins, or if the two can be separated? In The Trip you search for authenticity among the jokes and lulls, but what you get is what you see and hear: Mr. Coogan sniping, eating and whining, endlessly whining, about the size of his rooms, the state of his career, and Mr. Brydon a blissful foil. It’s plenty real.
Even so, it’s impossible to know if Mr. Coogan is honestly wounded and if Mr. Brydon is as cheerfully impervious to insult as he appears. It’s easier to guess: maybe so. In one scene Mr. Coogan tries to mimic Mr. Brydon’s popular ‘small man in a box’ voice and its tiny peeping, but fails. Looking into a mirror, Mr. Coogan says with strangled effort – addressing his twin self, the one perhaps responsible for great Coogan creations like Alan Partridge – ‘I don’t care about silly voices.’ It’s a perfect encapsulation of the contradictions and sad-funny neediness that The Trip gets at so well and a moment that Mr. Winterbottom almost blows with the tinkling piano that creeps onto the soundtrack whenever things turn self-consciously serious. There’s no need to milk the tears when, like the laughs, they’re already flowing.
–Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
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