British director Michael Winterbottom has made a lot of films of varying quality. My personal favorite, Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, made six years ago, was a funny, intelligent and uproarious piece about filming an “impossible text,” Laurence Sterne’s eighteenth century meta-fiction novel.
Winterbottom turned the work into a free-form, largely improvised look at the backstage maneuverings of the movie business. The director’s frequent collaborator Steve Coogan and his close friend Rob Brydon starred in both versions, the adaptation of the novel and fictionalized self-portraits found in the modern dress material.
Now in The Trip, the two go at that dynamic one more time, basically riffing on that of the movie star and his supplicant, in an often riotous funny new collaboration by Winterbottom and his two “co-leads,” as Brydon memorably insisted in the earlier film.
The set up is clean, though naturally sharpened and deepened by the discursive asides. The film version is actually cut from a six-part television series originally broadcast on BBC2. It opens with a phone call, Coogan on the line to Brydon, asking if he’s free to do a "tour of the North." He explains he has been commissioned by The Observer newspaper for a road tour of the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales.
The assignment is to last about five days, and it entails going to the best restaurants or places of historical or cultural interest. There’s a fee, Coogan explains. “I’ll split it with you, sixty-forty,” the first of several imperial remarks by Coogan to denote the hierarchal order involved. Coogan’s girlfriend, Misha (Claire Keelan), was supposed to accompany him, but they decided to spend some time apart.
I laughed a lot, as much as any recent movies I‘ve seen save Woody Allen‘s Midnight in Paris, but the laughter is something of a camouflage. It proves so emphatically consistent and enjoyable that it was almost until the end of the movie I realized it does not really amount to a great deal.
Like I said, the movie’s a riff on their own friendship and working relationship. Because they’re actors, comics even, the movie is studded with funny and often wounding points about envy, pride, ambition and where the other one rates. As the two traverse the absolutely spellbinding British countryside in Coogan’s Range Rover, the movie is really just a dexterous collection of comebacks, one-liners and impressions.
The form is open and playful, but it’s also confrontational. Without going too far or insistent, the movie has some quieter though sharp points about the enduring legacy of the English class system and how it impacts just this sort of friendship. The movie is fictionalized autobiography, so the tension and byplay have a shared and potent recognition.
Coogan is better known to American viewers, but the darker, compacted Brydon holds his own. As a proud Welshman, Brydon is constantly making the point of belonging to the great heir of Welsh actors: Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins and Michael Sheen. One of the funniest recurring gags is that Brydon, because of the popularity and renown of his Little Man in a Box routine the more far flung and rural the location the better known he is to the people they encounter along the way.
A lot of the dialogue, in the restaurants, pubs and small hotels they hang out, is made up of the two haranguing each other with felicitous impressions, especially Sean Connery and Michael Caine. They also look to the other side of the Atlantic. (You might not think of Al Pacino quite the same way again after hearing the brilliant, hilariously way Brydon eviscerates him.)
Winterbottom sharply teases out the differences of the two: Coogan is manic, impatient and brilliant; Brydon is more solid and workmanlike, a craftsman, but also somebody more comfortable for who and what he is. Coogan, alone and defiant, imagines himself the ladies’ man, and he seduces a couple of beautiful women, a Polish hostess and a Spanish photographer, but the way each woman steals away into the night only seems to emphasize his loneliness.
The Trip has a mostly sensational open hour before it drags. (The movie could probably use some minor cutting.) The sluggishness is probably inevitable given the inherent difficulties of trying to sustain the momentum and comic byplay. More damaging the movie also turns repetitive. (Just how many times can Brydon do the Caine impression?) Winterbottom also gets distracted, using cutaways to the kitchen to show the food being prepared.
I loved how the movie celebrates a very English comic tradition, sharply acknowledging both its intellectual roots (like the way Brydon seamlessly incorporates works by Coleridge and Wordsworth into his pieces) and also the social relevance given radio or music hall performers, an artistically important distinction that connects artists as disparate as Chaplin and Peter Sellers.
It is why Coogan, the more original of the two, stands somewhat sheepishly on the side, defensive and eager to assert his superiority. Brydon is both the comic foil, but somebody not really willing to challenge his secondary status. It is that wistful quality, the quiet resignation about career disappointment and artistic stagnation, that elevates the absurdist material and yields a poignancy and lyrical quality that was quite something. (I could do without the storylines of Coogan’s estranged relationship with his son or the stuff with his American agent.)
Winterbottom works a lot, in different forms, styles and genres, but he is, it seems, a kind of anti-auteur. It is worth noting his most interesting films are the ones that least require a personal signature of point of view. Whether the films bind together seems of little importance to him. His literary adaptations (Jude, The Killer Inside Me) are decorative triumphs of production design and mood, the best parts extracted from the source material.
He’s not a major filmmaker, but he’s somebody who takes great pleasure in what he does. It’s quick, nimble and unpretentious movies that register with a sureness of touch and graceful construction.
The Trip is gloriously daft and sometimes wicked, a good example of the alchemy when a smart director gets out of the way and lets his players take center stage.