Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Caitlin's Review of The Trip

Cheque, Please!
by Caitlin Murphy

The road trip flick, episodic in nature, can be difficult to imbue with meaningful coherence. Watching The Trip, I struggled to figure out what I’d say about it, mostly cause I had this consuming feeling that the whole thing felt like a great idea for a reality t.v. show. And then, Wikipedia, as it so often does, cleared up my confusion, explaining that The Trip is an “improvised six-episode comedy series… the episodes were edited together into a feature film.” Indeed they were. Edited together. Into a film. The thing is: intention matters. Genre matters. And obviously, Wikipedia matters. When you sit down to write a frothy pop song, you rarely, by accident, compose an opera; and when you set out to make a six-episode t.v. series, you likely don’t also happen to find the makings of a feature-length film. They’re different beasts. And having one dress up like the other just doesn’t work. After the fact insertions, cobblings, and re-arrangements are always somehow felt. Essentially, The Trip is an exercise in re-packaging, and it feels like one.

Directed by Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), The Trip focuses on ‘Steve Coogan’, played by Steve Coogan, who has been asked by a newspaper to tour the English countryside and write reviews of local restaurants. After losing his intended companion for the trip (girlfriend Misha who dumps him for the U.S.), Steve exhausts his A-list of alternates, and invites his sometimes-friend ‘Rob Brydon’ (played by Rob Brydon) to join him for the week of dreary drives and culinary adventures. The film follows the two sparring wags (Coogan and Brydon are both British comedians and colleagues) as they eat confusing food and raise banter to the level of Olympic sport.

The film’s opening scenes set us up for what looks like a study in contrasts. Steve beds every woman he meets, Rob has a cozy home life. Steve is perpetually dissatisfied with his celebrity status, Rob is very content with his career. Duos play best through difference. But the disparity between the two, the main source of conflict, which is the main source of story, kinda just wafted away after a while. More attention given to keeping up some real tension in their dynamic would have gone a long way to maintaining audience interest.

Coogan and Brydon are the type of oh-so clever lads that just don’t know what to do with themselves except inflict their ever-racing minds on one another. They are undoubtedly both brilliant, and often very entertaining, but after a while, the inside jokes feel claustrophobic, and you become as amused as a parent listening to yet another round of “I know you are but what am I.”. It’s all very infantile of course, and yes, that’s the point, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t wear on you. Improv, by its nature, sometimes yields amazing results and sometimes just goes on too long.

Impressions, which make up the bulk of the banter, are a particular brand of comedy that works best in doses. Small ones. When you first realize that someone can do a convincing impression, you’re suitably impressed. When they persist with the impression, you quickly hate them. There’s probably not a more dramatic emotional flip-flopping that occurs more quickly. Basically, the gag plays out. And if it’s gonna play out, the film could have capitalized on that more. Playing out is an interesting metaphor. Or could have been. At one point, after debating with Brydon about whether it’s more tiring to be a skirt-chaser or a family man, Coogan quips that “Everything is exhausting at our age.” Exhaustion as related to aging, being an entertainer, pursuing success, making people laugh, could have figured much more largely.

The whole premise for the trip seemed oddly absent—we never see Coogan actually working on his reviews or trying to figure out what he’ll write. We get many peeks into the restaurants’ kitchens, views of the chefs preparing the food, and these moments seem to want to offer us some kind of interesting commentary, but they don’t. Instead they end up just as cutaway shots, breaks from the banter that are exploited no further. Doing more with the initial premise would have added considerably to the coherence of the film (see first paragraph explaining that it’s not a film).

That all said, Coogan and Brydon are very quick, very smart and very funny. So the film can’t help but offer up several moments of inspired brilliance. Driving in the car at one point, the two start riffing on night-before-battle speeches of yore. It’s impossible to re-cap, but they toss around the idea like ADD kittens with a ball of yarn and the results are priceless. Another: Steve can’t understand how Rob could be bored by his explanations of geographical points of interest, until he gets a taste of his own medicine when an older man insists on explaining the origin of limestone to him. Watching Coogan awkwardly shuffle away from the man, as they stand alone atop a mountain is very funny. The fact that it’s all captured in long shot is comedy gold.

So, when compared to what gets slopped up as ‘comedy’ in America, The Trip is delightful for offering several actually funny moments. There were also tons of great ideas here – how men (especially lotharios) fare with aging; the ultimately hollow pursuit of fame; the fetishization of food – and likely if these ideas were explored with the intention of making a film, they would have yielded a lot. As it is though, just as I don’t pick up a novel, hoping to find an oil painting, I don’t go to the movies to watch t.v.

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