The Trip, Michael Winterbottom (2011)

Not since My Dinner With Andre have I been so fascinated watching two grown men eat.  On the surface, The Trip is a simple film about two comedians going on a restaurant tour and entertaining each other, and us, with their impressions and repartee.  But there’s a lot more going on under the surface, and the film has much more to say.  In fact, The Trip was cut together from a British series, and watching the film can only make you wish for access to the full running time, which undoubtedly has more meat on the bone.  But here in the U.S., the series is still unavailable and we have to make due with this truncated feature film version.

Beneath the laughter, there’s a real pathos and sadness to The Trip.  Coogan and Brydon are both playing variations of themselves, so there’s much to be gained from their public personas.  It’s unclear how much of their personal struggles are also anchored in reality, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think there are probably some parallels.  Steve is by far the more internationally famous of the two, and he spends most of the trip when not eating or navigating the choice of hotel rooms either on the phone with his agents or his younger girlfriend.  Steve is in that place with his career where he’s a known name, but he doesn’t have the power to get projects made or to really call his own shots.  He feels the weight of his age starting to settle in and already limiting his horizons, as well as his powerlessness to be able to make things happen in his career.  So it certainly doesn’t help that he and his girlfriend are “taking some time off,” or that she’s bailed on this trip that they were supposed to take together in favor of a trip to the States and some freelance work there.  Hard to say if Steve’s frustrations with his life are part of the reason the relationship is on the skids, but either way Mischa’s ambivalence is only making things worse.  Steve finds himself instantly insecure whenever talking to her, always wondering if her second foot is about to join the one already out the door.  Yet, his own career indecision, not wanting to completely abandon his son to move to the U.S., and his plagued mental state about what even constitutes a successful career certainly isn’t helping.

Brydon, on the other hand, has little international success but seems quite happy with his British fame and his career doing impressions.  He really can’t hold a conversation without expressing himself through the voices of Michael Caine, Hugh Grant, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, and Al Pacino, and there’s no one he delights more than himself.  Brydon never fails to enjoy the sound of his own voice, especially when his voice is imitating other voices.  He’s also got a wife and baby waiting at home, and is very fulfilled with his more modest success that can accommodate simple domestic joys.  He’s recognized out and about by the locals much more than Coogan, something that’s a constant thorn in Steve’s side as overly-concerned as he is with keeping a constant tally of success.

What bothers Coogan the most is the way he considers impressions, British television, and particularly radio as being low rungs on the ladder of success.  Impressions are, to him, a low form of humor that should be left behind with the passage of youth as maturity sets in and an actor aspires to something more.  Consequently, Brydon’s relative happiness and fulfillment, and the fact that he seems unconcerned with making more out of his career, and even his refusal to believe that he is less than Coogan, are things the Coogan just can’t reconcile.  Brydon is a great example of the sentiment that you can’t control what comes to you, and that you can only choose to be happy with what you have or not.  Coogan may have a shot at a bigger career, but the way it’s destroying him and any chance of happiness is a small, depressing tragedy.  However, this isn’t a circumstance specifically of show business; it’s a life lesson that anyone in any career likely has to struggle with.  Ambition is something that can only serve quality of life to a certain point before it hits a wall of diminishing returns.

In addition to both men and their relationships with their careers and their family lives, we also get a good look at their friendship.  Brydon is so on all the time, that he’s often too much to take.  It’s the kind of schtick only a mother could love, or in this case, his wife.  His wife obviously never tires of him, and for that it’s a match made in heaven.  But for everyone else, a little Brydon goes a long way.  Coogan in particular is always in search of the off button.  Yet, the comic in him often can’t help resist jumping in and joining the banter.  And more often than not, things quickly become a competition with Coogan feeling the need to constantly one-up Brydon and prove himself better at every turn.  If he fails there, he has to publicly criticize Brydon or try to needle away some of his natural confidence.  But behind the competition, there is also a genuine affection for each other.  Of course each man is somewhat jealous of what the other has, but they’re also long-time friends who came from a similar background, and they have a time-proven alliance like two soldiers after battling through a war together.  It’s a small group who can truly understand first-hand the kind of trials and difficulties that come from being a celebrity and a performer, and especially a comedian.  It’s a life filled with instability and insecurity, doubt and anxiety, and yet your livelihood depends on pushing all of that down, putting on a smile, and entertaining.  So there’s a deep respect between the two men buried underneath the superficial jibes and one-upmanship.  And for Brydon, it even goes beyond that.  As level-headed as Brydon is notwithstanding his own verbal mania, he knows his friend is struggling and in a tough emotional place.  It’s the reason he leaves his family and goes on the trip for a week, and puts up with a lot of Coogan’s insecure jabs.  It’s also likely the very reason he’s as animated and non-stop as he is; like any comedian, his solution to pain is laughter, and he’s trying his best to keep his friend’s spirits buoyed and his mind distracted.

Take away the food, take away the impressions, and take away the passive-aggressiveness of their relationship, and beneath it all is a touching story about the nature of friendship and how, even when we don’t always know how to solve our friend’s problems, we know that the best thing we can do is simply to be there with him.  And to try to put a smile on his face.

8/10

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Published in: on February 23, 2012 at 11:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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