Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Trip

“It’s really exhausting, keeping all of this going all the time, isn’t it?” the actor playing Steve Coogan’s father asks Rob Brydon, Coogan’s traveling companion, after another of Brydon’s nearly nonstop impressions. “Exhausting for us all,” mutters the half-envious, half-disgusted Coogan.

Coogan is right: the schtick can get tiresome in The Trip. But the joke within the joke is that Brydon’s compulsive kidding is far less wearisome than the self-aggrandizing self-pity that makes Coogan so fond of posing soulfully on lonely bluffs. And the prize inside the whole Cracker Jack box is that Coogan, Brydon, and director Michael Winterbottom are annoying us on purpose. "My idea was always that it was about two people in their 40s, in a midlife period, who just have very different attitudes to life," Winterbottom told the LA Times. "But like a lot of comedians, they are quite competitive, and it's funny seeing middle-aged men behave like that, wanting to be the best. And it's also quite sad."

Coogan and Brydon play frenemies based more or less loosely on themselves, comedian/actors whose relationship consists mainly of one-upping each other in inventive ways. Coogan has spoofed his bad reputation several times before, in Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People and Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, but this particular partnership grew out of Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. Coogan and Drydon played the same characters in that film, their improvised riffs providing some of its funniest moments and inspiring Winterbottom to suggest and then executive-produce a six-episode BBC series called The Trip. The movie was distilled from the footage of that show.

An insecure narcissist straining to maintain what he sees as his rightful place as Brydon’s superior, The Trip’s Coogan is constantly seething or sneering, obsessing about the relative sizes of their rooms, sulking when someone recognizes Brydon but not him, or bragging about his insistence on working only with “auteurs.” Meanwhile, the happy-go-lucky Brydon does impressions and makes jokes, his cheery soft-shoe routine an amusing contrast to Coogan’s self-important strut.

The pretext that gets them together is a magazine assignment Coogan accepted to review a series of haute-cuisine restaurants in the north of England. He took the assignment to impress a foodie girlfriend just before she decided they needed to take a break. So he ungraciously invites Brydon to take her place, and the road trip is on.

“I quite like people, in between laughing, to feel discomfort. I'm not sure why," Coogan told The Guardian. “Rob is less comfortable with discomfort. I think he walks away from conflict, whereas I gravitate towards it.” The discomfort created as Coogan pushes for moments of truth that Brydon tries to avoid provides much of the movie’s tension, while the Stan-and-Ollie power imbalance between the two provides most of the rest (There are also awkward moments between Coogan and just about everyone else he interacts with: the women he compulsively beds along the way, his parents, his absent girlfriend, his ex-wife.)

But for all their sparring, the two share a trunkload of cultural references and a genius for mining them for comedy. That makes them feel strongly connected, like rivalrous brothers, and it gives the movie its comic kick. Some of their bits, including dueling Woody Allens and Michael Caines and an imagined costume-drama call to battle that begins with the usual “We rise at daybreak!” and soon degenerates to “9:30-ish,” are brilliantly funny. So is Ben Stiller’s cameo in one of Coogan’s dreams, where he appears as a slick Hollywood agent promising Coogan films with all the hot directors, including the Coens, the Wachowskis, and Tony and Ridley Scott—“all the brothers!”

Coogan and Brydon are so focused on their tug of war that they almost forget to comment on the fetishized food they eat at every stop, but one foamy green concoction gets its just desserts. “The consistency is a bit like snot,” Coogan muses before adding brightly: “But it tastes great!”

By the end of The Trip, we may not know any more about the two main characters than we did at the beginning, but we’ve grown to care about them the way much they care about each other: against our better judgment and despite how easily they can get on our nerves.

Written for TimeOFF

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