Tuesday, October 18, 2011

[Film Review] THE TRIP: Commentary and Cuisine

In 2010, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon starred in an award winning BBC sit-com entitled The Trip. The show lasted for six critically acclaimed episodes. The show was nominated for a BAFTA for best situation comedy and Steve Coogan won a BAFTA for best male performance in a comedy role. In 2011, the television series was edited into a feature film distributed in the United States by IFC films.

The movie, like the television series, is a mockumentary about two comedic actors named Steve and Rob whose careers and lives bear a striking resemblance to those of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.

The film opens with Steve calling Rob to ask if Rob would be available for a trip critiquing a number of high end restaurants in the north of England.  Steven has accepted a commission from The Observer newspaper to do a travelogue and review column of the locations along the trip.  When he had initially taken the commission Steven had planned to have his gourmand girlfriend Mischa accompany him, but their relationship has been put "on hold" as she has traveled to the United States in the hopes of getting some journalistic commissions of her own.  Steven has run out of options for companions, and so he asks his co-worker of 11 years Rob to join him on the trip.

The movie is a delightfully buddy comedy which takes advantage of the Steven's and Rob's comfortable friendship to create a touching and believable narrative.  While one can enjoy the film just for the buddy comedy that it is, it is also a film that works on two other distinct levels.

First, as a visual representation of the north of England it is beautiful.  The cinematographer captured the moors, mountains, and pastures magnificently and the picturesque representations of bucolic England are one of the best advertisements for a vacation to the country that one could imagine.  Add to the visual beauty food that ranges from the exquisite to the weird, and a nice touch of history, and you have a film that works as a proxy for the travelogue that the Steven character is supposed to be writing.  In making a film depicting a writer journeying to acquire material, the film has managed to visually tell the tale as the character might well be writing.

The second, and more profound, level of the film is the nature of the lives of Steven and Rob and the social commentary contained therein.  Steven represents the urban sophisticate and Rob the bourgeois. 

Steven is the more "internationally famous" actor who has starred in American films and who is seeking more work in America, and who tells his British agent that he doesn't want to do any more British television.  He wants to star in important independent films, and doesn't have time to star as the "baddie" in an upcoming episode of Doctor Who.  Steven is not content with his professional life, and seeks to do something "important." 

Rob's work has mostly been in British television where he is known for his uncanny impressions and for a particular vocal gimmick called "small man trapped in a box."  Before I continue describing Rob's life, you really must experience the small man bit.  It is remarkable, and I couldn't believe it wasn't done with post-production tricks -- but it is something very real.

Rob is portrayed as a working class actor who is quite content with his career and who deeply appreciates the respect and admiration he receives from his fans.  Where Steven is dour, Rob is cheerful -- infectiously so.

It isn't merely creatively that Steven is frustrated.  His personal life is also the shambles.  His girlfriend has just left him, though he is trying to keep a connection to her, and his divorce has had a predictable affect on his relationship with his son -- a son who is rebelling a bit and who is in need of a positive role model.  Steven can't maintain a long term relationship, and he cannot quite keep track of the one night stands he has had.  He is so caught up in the life of the "artiste" and trying to be a kind of tragic artist in personality, that it is hard for him to truly connect with another person.  There is a wonderful moment in the film where he is getting high in a room once used by Coleridge.  Steven is trying his best to affect a kind of moody poetic persona, that it creates a powerful yet muted comedic moment. 

The opposite is true of Rob's life.  He and his wife have only recently had a baby.  They have a strong and delightful relationship filled with laughs.  Where Steven's phone calls end in sighs and "I have to go nows," Rob's conversations don't end on screen.  One can imagine that the playful dialogue between Rob and his wife continues until either they both fall asleep or until the baby awakens in need of some care.  The moments where Rob converses and flirts with his wife on the phone are some of the most personal and magical in the film.

It should be noted that all of Steven's phone calls take place via cell phone, and that his quest for cell phone signals is a humorous sub-plot on its own, while all of Rob's phone calls are on land line.  The cell phone is presented as cold and distant and never really allows the people on either end of the phone to "connect," whereas the land line is portrayed intimately and conversations via land line are akin to cuddling.

Once more the "urban sophisticate" is contrasted to the simpler "bourgeois," a major theme of the film that is portrayed in a number of ways -- always with the "sophistication"/elitism being shown as failing or inappropriate.  Steven rents a Land Rover because "the north has hills," he has accepted a commission to write about food without any real knowledge of food, and so on.

Two of my favorite moments (displayed below) are the very much talked about "Dueling Michael Caines" scene and the "We Rise at Dawn" scene. The "We Rise" scene is maybe one of my favorite comic bits ever. It ranks with "Who's on First" in my mind.

Witty, subtle, beautiful, and rewatchable.  The Trip is one of those rare films that makes a short trip seem like an epic journey, all while never being anything other than a small trip.  It praises family over fame and friendship over facade.

1 comment:

SESchend said...

Thanks for the post, Christian; I'd forgotten about this movie, though all I'd heard about it intrigued me. Thus, it's going back on the Netflix queue ASAP thanks to you.

And castigate me all you like, but I'm a fan of Coogan's Hamlet 2 for its over-the-top silliness; if you've not seen it, rent it (but only if you're able to have a sense of humor about religion, high school drama, and science fiction).

Come to think of it, one could blurb Hamlet 2 as "If Ed Wood Jr. wanted to use the cast of GLEE for a Shakespeare/passion play mashup." And how many movies can you say THAT about?