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The Trip

We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us."   That bit of wisdom from Steinbeck's Travels With Charley not only speaks to the exciting, open-ended potential of travel, it also serves as a cautionary statement.   Plan all you like, the best and worst moments of your trip are just going to happen.  This applies as much to the likes of you and me as we take a modest excursion as it does to celebrities who decide to hit the road and document the experience for the entertainment if not benefit of their fellow man.  If you are such a luminary, a star even, and you set out upon the proverbial open road, the results just HAVE to be delightfully interesting, don't they?  Well....

If you have ever seen The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour - 60 minutes remarkably devoid of magic and mystery - you know that even a group of people among the most magnetic in the world to an audience of its time can be rendered dull if not insufferable from too vague a notion of a wacky experience, too flimsy an attempt to manufacture spontaneity.  

Based upon its premise, The Trip would seem to be rife with the potential for similarly cricket-chirping expanses of screen time.  The film is based on a BBC 2 series of the same name whose six episodes ran late in 2010.  The series was pared down to the 107 minutes of the film version by director Michael Winterbottom.  It reunites the director with actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon from Tristram Shandy:  A Cock and Bull Story, Winterbottom's 2005 attempt to film the challenging Laurence Sterne novel.  Perhaps the least satisfying aspect of "Tristram Shandy" was its epilogue, which found Coogan and Brydon sitting in a soundstage, just "riffing" as it were.  Unfortunately, either the actors or their director over-estimated their ability to be funny on command.  Whether it is in some ways a treatment of Sterne's "Sentimental Journey," or just a continuation of the improvisational approach of "Tristram Shandy," The Trip manages to succeed precisely where its predecessor failed.   

The set-up for The Trip is that Coogan has been hired by The Observer to travel to some of Northern England's finest inns and restaurant and sample their fancy cuisine.  His considerably younger American girlfriend, Mischa (Margo Stilley) - admittedly more the foodie than he - was to accompany the actor until she decided to return to America and declare a break in their relationship.  This leaves Coogan to scramble for a travel companion.  The opening credits of The Trip play out as Coogan rings Brydon and asks him if he's up for the journey.  Such is the candor between the two men that Coogan makes no attempt to hide the fact that Brydon is neither his first choice for co-pilot, nor second or third.  None-the-less, the good natured Welshman agrees to abandon his wife and child for a week and the boys head up the M1 in a Range Rover. 

The scene might change, from the various restaurants and inns - six in all with imposing names like L'Enclume, Holbeck Ghyll and Hipping Hall - but the two men quickly fall into a set formula of low-grade acrimony puncuated but moments of grudging affection.  Brydon is the family man and successful mainstream entertainer, a positively inveterate provider of impersonations, like them or not.  He has the mutable if not rubbery face of a character actor.  Coogan, with his full roster of ex-wife, child and young girlfriend, is the Peter Pan, albeit a rather grumpy one.  As an actor, he has eschewed obvious career choices - "I don't work with mainstream directors, I work with auteurs," he pompously declares to his traveling companion at one point.  But he's also slightly haunted by his most successful mainstream creation (mainly in Britain), the character of Alan Partridge.  Coogan is made to be at once scornful and jealous of Brydon's success (Coogan did actually help Brydon get a leg up in England and it's now Brydon who enjoys greater popularity in the U.K.).  With his wavy, longish, graying hair, he looks a bit the Edwardian or late-Victorian dandy or man of letters in sensible 21st century clothing. 

The Trip presents at least a version of the two men and their relationship, Brydon launching into one impersonation or another at the least provocation and Coogan alternately rolling his eyes and unable to resist providing a competing take, as when Brydon demonstrates his Michael Caine and the deepening gradations in the actors Cockney over the decades due to cigars and drink, while Coogan insists that the impersonation needs to be more nasal.  The Caine-off occurs early on and is reprised later for the sake of an audience of two women, Coogan's assistant and an attractive Spanish photographer.  The not always convivial relationship between the two men - by all accounts they are occasional colleagues more than friends - is emphasized both for the series and the film, as is evident by the publicity photos for both.  

An exchange between Coogan and Brydon at the ruins of Bolton Abbey encapsulates the Frick and Frack nature of the pair's relationship, at least for the sake of The Trip.  Brydon launches into a dramatic oration of Wordsworth's poem "Bolton Abbey," while Coogan looks on with an expression that warms only slightly from a scowl to one of martyred patience.  Brydon finishes by saying "Sir Ian McKellen."  One of the comedic undercurrents of The Trip is that the Brydon sometimes finds it necessary to name the actor he's impersonating.  

Coogan:  "Is that why you went to bed early last night so you could learn that poem?"

Brydon:   "Yes!"  Mission Accomplished.

Coogan:  "What would have been really nice is if you had gotten up this morning, if you had learned that poem - which I appreciate although it was meant to intimidate me - if you had gotten up this morning and said the poem in your own voice and meant the words."

Brydon:  "I chose a voice to suit the mood.  I felt Sir Ian, coming as he does from Bolton, would be perfectly suited."

Coogan:  "It's a different Bolton, Rob.  A different Bolton." 

Brydon:  "It's the same word."

As ever, Coogan is both dismissive of Brydon's accomplishments, but can't help trying to crowd ahead of them.  During the same post-oration exchange, Coogan chides Brydon, "You weren't interested in Wordsworth before we went on this trip...or Bolton Abbey....I liked Bolton Abbey before you liked Bolton Abbey."   

While Brydon sets forth the first lines of Wordsworth's poem - "From Bolton's old monastic tower/The bells ring loud with gladsome power" - we are treated to dramatic shots of the ruined priory and adjacent graveyard lit by beams of daybreak sun breaking through the morning haze.  The splendors of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria, natural and man-made, are captured to maximum effect by cinematographer Ben Smithard.  At one of the natural wonders, Gordale Scar in North Yorkshire, the supercilious Coogan gets some comeuppance.  As the two men turn the corner of a walking path, the famous ravine is suddenly before them.   Brydon, for once, is rendered speechless by the scene, but Coogan won't shut up about the geological origins of the area's unique makeup.  When admiration has been duly paid by both men, Coogan decides to go climbing, leaving the more cautious Brydon behind, the latter offering a parental "be careful."  Coogan ascends to the top of the ravine, a shelf of massive limestone boulders, from where he contemplates the Yorkshire landscape about him.  Of all the stage-managed scenes of exterior rumination on the part of Coogan in The Trip, this peaceful moment seems the most genuine.  This only adds bite to the irony that follows.  Coogan is joined by an older man.  When routine greetings and remarks on the general beauty of the area are swapped, the stranger begins to wax pedantic in the manner in which Coogan had beleaguered Brydon only minutes before.  It's a sad thing, a man so full of information and desperate to dispense it to a disinterested world; all the more so when one recognizes oneself in the bombast coming from some other blowhard (Writer's note - I am sometimes that man and it frightens me).

As for the panoply of haute cuisine, it finds an appreciative if not terribly knowledgable audience in the two actors.  At The Trip's first stop,  The Inn at Whitewell (Lancashire), Coogan appraises his tomato soup thusly, " tastes of tomatoes."   Well, yes.  The lads later approve of a bottle of premier cru wine brought to their table, because...premier means first, which of course is good.  They don't fare quite as well in deciphering the "cru."  Perhaps the best episode of culinary irreverence occurs at the aforementioned  L'Enclume when an appetizer of manioc leaf liquor topped with ginger whisky fizz arrives.  Coogan raises an intrigued eyebrow and Brydon, in typical mock eloquence says, "It tastes of a childhood garden."  "Well, it's got a bit of alcohol on it.  It tastes....Was there a lot of alcohol your garden as a child?  I'm sorry Rob."   This Coogan's deadpan reply.  He then likens the consistency of the conconction to snot (BUT, it tastes great!"), Brydon imagines that Ray Winstone "has couged it up" and the boys are off with competing phlegmy Ray Winstone impersonations, one of the more inspired bits of mimicry in The Trip.


Coogan and Brydon enjoying a bit of Ray Winstone in The Trip.

In pitching the idea of The Trip to Coogan, Winterbottom apparently said that he wanted a continuation of th the improvisational approach utilized in "Tristram Shandy" with more substance.  It was a good impulse on the part of the director.   But for all the mention of Wordsworth and Coleridge, for all the regional beauty and culinary flair on display, one of the more oblique pleasures of The Trip is the mens' sometimes dumb if not blatantly childish appreciation of the food, landscape and history they are made to regard.   

The more obvious pleasures of The Trip tend to occur when the two men relax a bit from the extremes of their personalities (or at least their characters) and laugh with each other.  This is the case with the "Ray Winstone's snot" parlay, as well as a conversation that finds them imagining a rousing costume drama in the moutainous terrain through which they're driving  - "Gentlemen, to bed! For  we rise at daybreak...or 9:30...ish....But now to bed!...UNLESS you are one of those people, like me, who finds it very hard to get off after he's eaten cheese...."   There is also the unexpected advocacy on the part of Coogan for ABBA's "The Winner Takes It All."  This results in the inevitable assumption of Swedish accents until Coogan realizes that they've crossed the border into Germany.  He then notes that he sounds like the Nazi officer in the first scene of Inglorious Bastards and a couple of hilarious if politically incorrect quips follow.    

For it's many high points, it might have been a better "Trip."  As counterpoint to all the laughs and celebrity impersonations, Winterbottom telegraphs some very obvious moments of pensiveness.  All such interludes belong to Coogan and seem as orchestrated as the planned humorous clash of personalities between he and Brydon.  During the journey north, this invariably occurs outdoors, as Coogan speaks to Mischa in New York, his son in London, or is just a man alone in the windswept landscape (sometimes it's just a matter of trying to find cell phone reception, as when he climbs a hill in rather forbidding weather).

The all-too-obvious point is that Coogan, despite a more youthful lifestyle, despite the young American girlfriend and the fact that there seems to be an attractive woman for him to bed at most every stop on The Trip...the aloof Coogan is a lonely soul longing for something he probably can't even define.  Fair enough, whether it's true of the character, the actor, or both.  But too frequently, as with the film's last scene that finds him back in his swank flat, essentially bent over with despair, while Brydon is seen happily back in the bosom of his family, Winterbottom overshoots pathos and skids well into the off-putting realm of bathos.  Both in final scene several earlier with Coogan out alone in nature, the director is not helped by Michael Nyman's score of plaintive solo piano, which is not likely show up on a compilation of the prolific film composer's finest work.

Michael Winterbottom's best decision with The Trip was reuniting Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, while giving them just structure to allow them to play off the circumstances and each other.   There may not be the substance for which the director was striving, but there are plenty of laughs.   The best of them just seem to happen, as much despite as because of the set-ups.  So it goes with a good trip.



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