Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Trip

Steve Coogan plays "Steve Coogan" in a film (largely) about Steve Coogan. The relationship of Coogan and Rob Bryden, previously explored to great effect in Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy (Winterbottom also directed The Trip), makes this a bit like the British Old Joy, a road trip buddy movie about friendship and the tug of war between freedom vs. responsibility, substituting the English Lake District for the Pacific Northwest. As scenic as Old JoyThe Trip is, on a more modest scale, nearly as layered and digressive as Shandy. Though clearly a fiction, the film draws heavily on the public personas of the two men and leaves us wondering how accurate a glimpse of their inner lives we've actually been given.

I liked how the emotional threads emerge as the characters try to repress their anxieties (about aging, career, etc.) or hide them beneath a veneer of humor (even when the humor is precisely about those anxieties). Coogan is by turns critical and dismissive of Bryden's (rather masterful) celebrity impressions when they're together (the premise is that Coogan has brought Bryden along on a sort of journalistic food tour of the North of England), but then we see him practicing them alone in front of the bathroom mirror, a picture of insecurity. The interplay of the ridiculous (the constant dueling impressions) and the more "serious" content was handled with relative subtletly and naturalness, capturing something very true about the way men talk about pop culture as a way of avoiding more personal or serious subjects. I only felt the balance tip too far in one direction at the end, when the contrast between Brydon returning to his family and Coogan to his cold, empty luxury apartment was scored with music a little too "on the nose", as if the point wasn't already obvious from the images.

All said, though, this is one of the most enjoyable movies I've seen all year and certainly one of the funniest. I wonder if it would work as well for someone who hadn't seen Tristram Shandy or wasn't familiar with Coogan's early work (especially Alan Partridge). Even without that background, I think it would be obvious that Coogan and Bryden are operating here at a very high level, turning the mundane, the trivial, and the repetitive into hugely effective comedy (they're helped by editing which displays timing almost as sharp as that of the actors, letting bits run on just long enough and cutting on just the right beats). Before watching the film, I didn't realize that it had been edited down to feature length from a longer TV series. Netflix doesn't seem to have the TV version, but a great deal of the cut material seems to be on the U.S. DVD as deleted scenes, including a sequence of multiple takes of a driving scene where Coogan and Brydon explore the idea of a historical drama where a lord (to be played by Coogan) instructs his men that they leave for battle at "10ish" in the morning. Watching the two actors try out seemingly endless variations on this simple idea (Coogan must say "Gentlemen, to bed" about 150 times) was hypnotic and absolutely fascinating, putting me into some sort of weird comedy trance.

[I enjoyed this list of commercial voice-overs the versatile, prolific and apparently ubiquitous-in-the-UK Bryden has done, according to his Wikipedia page: Renault, Tango, The Times, Tesco, Abbey National, Sainsburys, McDonald's, Toilet Duck, Cahoot, Mint Card, Pot Noodle, Domino's Pizza, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, The Observer, Fairy Liquid]