Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Pauline's Review of The Trip

With food consciousness, food fetishism and food snobbery at an all-time high, it’s not unreasonable to assume that The Trip, which chronicles two actor friends’ weeklong journey to northern England’s finest restaurants, might hinge on the role played by food; not so. Viewers hoping to learn about restauranteering, the cultural significance of food, or British culinary trends won’t have the opportunity to indulge in more than a few minutes’ worth of food footage and a couple of serious-chef-at-work/snooty waiter scenes. An odd twist since one of the main characters is supposed to be writing restaurant reviews.

Casting aside the disappointment of not getting what I came for, this movie was lackluster nonetheless. It could have been a great story exploring male friendship, or aging in show business, or self-discovery at mid-life. What’s really so difficult to swallow (pun intended; its poor quality is intended to echo that of the film) is that it’s not about any of that; it’s not really about anything. Watching The Trip is less like being riveted by an engaging plot with intriguing characters and more like sitting in the backseat during a long drive with two people who are strangers to you, but who have known each other a long time and like to talk shop. Consequently, as actors, their references to cinema, literature and pop culture bounce back and forth between them like an easy game of table tennis, but whisk past you at highway speed. Throw in a limitless repertoire of British, Irish and Scottish accents that all sound the same to your untrained North American ear, and a spattering of American ones that don’t sound right at all, and you’re not only bored, but irritated. This is obviously not something you’d want to play out for more than a scene or two in a two-hour-long movie. And this is definitely not where you’d lay focus in chronicling six days in the relationship between two adult men. You wouldn’t want to insult and alienate the viewer like that. Right?!

Alright. So maybe I wouldn’t have felt so alienated if I’d done my homework on Romantic-era poets. Or if I were more familiar with James Bond. Or if I had spent considerable time and effort examining and chronicling the effects of age on Michael Caine’s voice. No matter. My studies would have perhaps allowed for a better understanding of the dialogue, but they wouldn’t have made the movie any more compelling.

The two main characters are, for lack of a better description, successful British actors in real life who are playing quasi-fictionalized versions of themselves in this movie. I’m willing to concede that if I’d had some familiarity with them, their body of work and their relationship to the British public beforehand, I might have had some sort of pre-established understanding of their characters and their backgrounds that would have helped me to understand their motivations, their histories, and their significance to the average British viewer. But that’s not a fair assumption to make of your audience; this isn’t an episode of Coronation Street that can assume certain knowledge of its faithful viewers. And so, the repartee between the two main characters amounted to a sort of awkward stand-up comedy routine in which the performers are more concerned with impressing each other than in fostering a connection with the audience, because that connection is assumed to exist before you walk in the theatre.

Even the slight back story we get on the characters doesn’t make them any more engaging. Steve and Rob are successful actors who have known each other for roughly ten years, but who don’t have a particularly close friendship. Steve almost heroically tolerates the fact that Rob doesn’t have much of a personality but for his constant imitations of famous people and penchant for phone sex. Rob isn’t too put off by Steve’s unwillingness to discuss his personal struggles in any detail. And so they coast languidly through the film, singing songs in the car and comparing their vocal abilities while never delving deep into anything at all, never revealing anything beyond superficial anxieties (while only hinting at more existential ones). Steve cares for his teenage son and does his best to co-parent with his infuriating ex-wife (though she would surely have a few choice words for him); he worries that his girlfriend-on-a-break is seeing other people (while he sleeps with other women); he tries to be a good son to his aging parents (but isn’t really willing to spend too much time visiting them); and he essentially evokes zero sympathy, a few laughs, and not much else. His self-comparison to Brontë’s complex and tormented Heathcliff was so laughable, it made for the best joke of the film.

The Trip made me uncomfortable, and not only because it feels like a bad publicity stunt orchestrated by two actors who make a movie about nothing simply because their celebrity status garners ticket sales. What struck me beyond that is that I felt a little cheated. No matter which angle I considered – plot, climax, character, humour, suspense, drama, conflict, and even the cinematic go-to, “the human condition” – this movie fell too short of interesting to be worthwhile.

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