When panning a particularly infuriating film, renowned critic Gene Siskel would often remark that he would rather watch a documentary of the same actors having lunch together. “The Trip” might just be the first ever attempt to test that theory. Sort of.
The premise of “The Trip” is certainly that simple: UK comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing themselves, head off on a week-long tour of fancy restaurants in the north of England. That may not seem like much to go on, but both Coogan and Brydon are masters of improvisation, and this basic setup is enough to spark a feature-length series of tangents and digressions. In fact, the film is an edited-down version of a 6-installment mini-series that played on BBC last year, and armed with such knowledge it’s easy to spot the episodic nature. A brief prelude and epilogue bookend six distinct days; I say distinct not in the sense that anything singular happens on any given day, but that they are quite clearly marked “Monday,” “Tuesday,” “Wednesday” and so on.
Indeed, “The Trip” rather quickly establishes a formula and sticks to it: there are some shots of Coogan and Brydon riding in a car and making fun of each other, then some shots of absurdly elaborate meals being prepared and served to Coogan and Brydon as they make fun of each other, then some more shots of driving and…well, you can see where this is going. But the repetitiveness of the film’s structure is of little consequence, as the delight of watching the two comedians banter with each other is more than enough to entertain oneself for 90 minutes.
It is a slight problem, then, that the film actually lasts closer to 120 minutes. The disappointment of “The Trip” is that there’s no reason the film couldn’t be funnier; instead of sticking to the straight comedy of Brydon’s endless barrel of impressions and Coogan’s eternal exasperation, director Michael Winterbottom seems to feel the need to shoehorn in roughly half an hour of some kind of meaningful commentary on celebrity. Coogan and Brydon’s fictional selves here are essentially continuations of their personalities from the superior “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” (also directed by Winterbottom), with Coogan as the status-obsessed wannabe star, and Brydon as the quirky but easygoing entertainer, far more satisfied with his lesser lot. But “A Cock and Bull Story,” rambling and improvisational as it was, had a method to its aimlessness: what better way to adapt a novel where the protagonist never gets around to telling his life story, than make a movie about an adaptation of the novel where they never get around to filming the movie? …oh, just see the film, it’ll make a lot more sense.
Fictional Coogan’s conviction that he could still become a viable Hollywood star was an amusing sideplot of “A Cock and Bull Story,” but “The Trip” for some reason feels the need to delve deeper into this superficiality, constantly reminding us of Coogan’s troubles with his estranged girlfriend, his distant son and his obnoxious American agent. A solid chunk of the film depicts Coogan desperately scouring the northern moors for cell phone reception, and when Brydon cries out that his companion is “stuck in a metaphor,” the audience will likely agree. But to what purpose does Coogan warp himself into this shell of a human being? Surely this is not what the actual Steve Coogan is like, or there would be no comedy in enterprise, just a truly uncomfortable honesty. So assuming the whole thing is a put-on, how much meaning can we find in such a ridiculously self-inflated figure? The dissatisfaction of modern celebrity seems a rather well-trod path for such typically irreverent actors.
But, as Brydon and Coogan themselves remark at one point early on in the film, it’s 2011, and originality of thought is hard to come by these days. So we’re left with originality of method, and the duo’s brand of extended riffing certainly provides a fresh counter to Hollywood’s tendency of heavily over-scripting comedies, a tendency I believe, by the way, has resulted in God’s punishing us with the zombie-like body-switch genre (for fuck’s sake, Jason Bateman, the first “Freaky Friday” came out 35 years ago). Coogan and Brydon’s exchanges over costume dramas and vocal ranges in particular had me in stitches, and judging which of the two does the best Roger Moore impression provides some perversely long-lasting amusement.
“The Trip” would have been better if it hadn’t inexplicably strayed from hilarity into misguided stabs at poignancy. One wonders where the shame is in just creating a simple, uproarious dark comedy. Where the film soars, and what makes it still a must-see for fans of films like “A Cock and Bull Story” or “In the Loop,” is in the barbs that fly back-and-forth between Coogan and Brydon over the dinner table; in a way, Winterbottom has proven Gene Siskel’s theory right, only he’s somehow done it with only one film instead of two.
Now maybe still playing in some indie theaters.
Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars