It’s a metaphor! – The Trip review

The Trip – Starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Directed by Michael Winterbottom. By Simon Miraudo.

So, this is new: a frequently hilarious comedy that is also totally satisfying on an emotional level. A satire of fame that is never mean-spirited, and isn’t filled with obnoxious jokes aimed only at insiders. Two actors playing slightly-warped versions of themselves, but not so warped it feels like a joke, and often so honestly it seems as if they are legitimately engaging in some personal introspection. Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip follows his Tristram Shandy stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they travel the English countryside; partaking of its culinary delights on the dime of UK newspaper The Observer. As the trailers promise, they eat, they bicker and they impersonate Michael Caine repeatedly. There isn’t much else to it. But somehow, within the wafer-thin outline of events Winterbottom asks his leads to navigate, they manage to find deep truths and reveal rich characters. No half-improvised movie should be this nourishing.

The Trip begins with Steve Coogan, alone in his miserably lit and coldly-decorated flat, calling his buddy/adversary Rob Brydon with a proposition. He’s going on a week-long tour of the finest restaurants in the north of England, and since he and his girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley) have just parted ways, he’s wondering if Brydon would like to keep him company instead please. The cheerful Brydon accepts, leaving behind his sweet wife and baby daughter and setting off on a road trip with the curmudgeonly Coogan. They travel to six separate destinations (real restaurants, no doubt getting a nice publicity bump). Whenever they dine, Brydon attempts to shoe-horn in any and as many celebrity impersonations he can muster, lest they have a conversation of real worth. Coogan, meanwhile, turns every meal into a competition; he attempts to out-impersonate Brydon (always failing), berates him for his mediocre career, and then mourns the slow death of his own. Through it all, they’re treated to some exquisite looking food, none of which they are fully equipped to comment on or critique (the best adjective they can muster for one mysterious amuse-bouche is ‘snotty’).

Brydon and Coogan have such a natural chemistry and are so innately funny they could have turned eight hours of eating duck liver terrine and scallops into electrifying cinema. It’s merely an added bonus that they’ve decided to imbue their comedic tête-à-têtes with an underlying layer of tragedy (which doesn’t diminish the laughs, but makes the film a more moving experience). Gut-busting exchanges about getting old, or the debatable brilliance of Michael Sheen, are interrupted by surprisingly sad outbursts that don’t so much as come from nowhere as they are built from the characters growing frustration with each other and themselves. Coogan is the one confronted with the most conflict; whereas Brydon is content with his middle-of-the-road career (a highlight of which includes his ‘Small Man Trapped in a Box’ iPhone app), Coogan is forever volleying calls from agents to orchestrate his big break, unable to accept that perhaps his time has come and gone (when he attempts the ‘Small Man Trapped in a Box’ routine in the privacy of his hotel room, it acts as a not-so-subtle comment on his inability to escape the Alan Partridge-shaped albatross around his neck). Later, he attempts to cross a river via some stepping stones, and gets stuck halfway through (a metaphor, relieved of its self-importance thanks to Brydon screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘It’s a metaphor!’). Coogan is not the only one who ends up under the microscope however; at a cemetery, he offers Brydon a particularly cutting pre-death eulogy, claiming that he’d attend his funeral, ‘If only to pad out the numbers’.

It’s important to note that The Trip originally aired on UK television as six half-hour episodes. Those three hours have been cut down to a 107 minute feature for international distribution (the fat has been trimmed rather expertly, and only one notable plot point, regarding Brydon’s infidelity, has been excised). Despite the effective editing – miraculously keeping the picture from feeling episodic – the project only reminds us how deep the canyon has become between quality comedy in film and television. Most comic movies would not embrace prolonged silences or vast, lingering shots of the sumptuous landscape. According to Hollywood, a good comedy has to have a high joke-per-minute ratio, so that the audience feels like they’re getting their money’s worth. The best part of 2011’s sleeper hit Bridesmaids is an early scene in which our female protagonists share a coffee and have a goofy conversation. The beauty of that scene is recreated time and time again in The Trip. It’s a better film about male bonding than The Hangover Part 2, and it even features a funnier sing-along, outdoing Mike Tyson’s bizarre rendition of One Night in Bangkok with a heartfelt cover of ABBA’s The Winner Takes It AllThe Trip proves, much like its small servings of mouth-watering gourmet food, it’s the quality and not the quantity that counts. By taking the time to explore characters, build relationships, and offer its protagonists an arc (however small), Winterbottom and his performers/writers deliver not just a brilliant comedy, but a touching drama, and a lasting experience.

4/5

Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

The Trip is now showing in Australian cinemas.

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