Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Trip

Spoiler alert-o-meter: A few spoilers ahead, but nothing that will ruin your movie-going experience.

British comic Steve Coogan has played many characters including clueless talk show host Alan Partridge, an ego-maniacal movie director in Tropic Thunder, guileless and clueless high school theater teacher in Hamlet II, and a smarmy bad guy in last summer’s The Other Guys. He’s also played a character named Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom’s brilliant movie within a movie conceit Tristram Shandy. In that, Steve Coogan is a version of himself at once charming, ego-maniacal, clueless, and often unsympathetic, while he worries about his role in the adaptation of Tristram Shandy while trading competing barbs with his co-star, Rob Brydon.

In Winterbottom’s new film, The Trip, Steve Coogan again plays a version of actor Steve Coogan in the same vein, again trading barbs with his co-star, Rob Brydon. This time, instead of a movie within a movie, the conceit has Steve accepting an assignment from the British magazine The Observer to drive around the Northern England countryside, stay at various inns, eat at restaurants, and report the experience.

Steve had originally planned to take his young American girlfriend, but before the trip starts they decide to take a break and she flies back to Los Angeles. In her stead Steve is forced to take along TV actor/personality Rob Brydon. Rob plays basically the version of himself he played in Tristram Shandy. Steve and Rob’s relationship here is similar to the one on display in Shandy, although in that movie Steve was the bigger star. Or so it seemed. He was, after all, playing the lead character in the movie based on the classic novel. 

But you don’t have to know all this meta backstory to enjoy The Trip. After Steve and Rob set off from London in Steve’s Land Rover the movie clicks into a comfortable pastiche of road movie and buddy picture, splashed with the essence of mid-life/mid-career crisis.

Driving into the countryside, they again adopt the rhythm of competition, trying to outdo each other with everything from directions to vocal impressions. Rob is excellent at impressions and a surprising amount of time is spent on these two trying out impressions on each other. The impressions are of actors, including Sean Connery (as James Bond, of course), Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, and Roger Moore. They give Woody Allen a shot, and it’s not bad, but they can’t nail Allen’s nasally upper register.

They gently spar over meals and during visits to historic sites along the way. These scenes register as real moments between the actors, and you can see Rob trying to make Steve laugh. Steve Coogan the character comes across as a classic actor type: pampered, petulant, privileged. Rob Brydon the character has a solid career on TV, and he is happily married with baby (this is a fabrication for the movie—we are after all in a fictional landscape, an alternative world).

In Tristram Shandy the pair’s relationship seemed predicated more on their careers, of which Steve’s was more successful. This makes sense because Tristram Shandy was, among other things, a movie about work; the tasks involved in making a movie. Here, out in the country, Steve seems jealous of Rob’s comfortable if mid-level career. A telling moment has Steve unsuccessfully recreating in front of a motel room mirror Rob’s Small Man in a Box bit, which is apparently quite popular and which Rob is happy to perform for a museum curator in return for letting them enter after hours.

Steve Coogan is perfect at playing agitated. He never really seems relaxed. He is comfortable when buffeting his emotions by always being a little taken aback: by certain accommodations, by a photo shoot, by the spotty cell phone service, and by not remembering if he’s met the beautiful photographer they meet up with at one of the inns (they have met, they’ve already slept together—but that doesn’t stop them from sleeping together again).

Steve is at a crossroads in his acting career; he never really found that breakout role to catapult him to stardom. He’s getting older (“I’ve been 41 for three years,” he says at one point), his relationship with his American girlfriend is on shaky ground, and he’s got a teenage son whom he has a hard time communicating with. When Steve’s American agent calls to tell him he’s up for a co-lead in an American police procedural series, he’s interested only in terms of being closer to his girlfriend—he’d rather do movies than TV.

The insider movie stuff is all wonderful: I’m a sucker for it. I never tired of Steve’s schtick because he wants you to laugh at him, not feel sorry for him. It’s in those rare moments when Rob makes Steve genuinely laugh that you feel the fondness these two men have for each other. Driving through the chilly mountain mornings, bickering over the meaning of an Abba song (Rob makes fun of the lyrics, while Steve sincerely loves the song), you just want to give them a group hug.

The movie has been culled from episodes of a British TV show of the same name in which, one assumes, there was more driving, more eating, more countryside, more of Steve frolicking with the locals, and more comfortable bickering. But it doesn’t feel like scattered highlights, it plays like a complete, if sometimes slight, feature film with at its core, heart, midlife ennui, and a reminder that these two performers could make a performance of any situation worth watching.


Theater location: Landmark Theater, Kendall Square, Cambridge, Saturday, June 18th, 4:15 pm. Price: 10.00. Viewed with Liz! Snack: cashews, Diet Coke with Lime.

Landmark Theater, Kendall Square, Cambridge

Coming Attractions: 

The Topp Twins, Untouchable Girls. The trailers were full of documentaries. Talk about cheap, fast, and out of control. Let's start with this true tale of sisters who perform together as a singing comedy duo. And then, one of them gets cancer. Funny and sad at the same time.

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop. Cameras follow Conan O'Brien as he toured the country last summer, showcasing his experiences between getting kicked off The Tonight Show to starting his own show on TNT. This one looks good. So good in fact that we're seeing tomorrow. Review forthcoming.

Tabloid. Documentary by Errol Morris about a legendary scandal in Britain about the true-life story of Joyce McKinney. "She was a beauty queen, a hot little number, and she fell in love with a guy.  She made the mistake of falling for a Mormon, though, and his family and his community sent him overseas on a mission to get away from her.  She followed him.  Things got weird.  That's all you need to know."

Buck. A doc about the real Horse Whisperer as portrayed in that Robert Redford movie. It's a tear jerker, where the way a horse acts tells more about the owner than the horse. This movie looks pretty emotionally compelling.

Pianomania. About the crazy dudes who the tune pianos of the worlds greatest pianists. Seriously.


Robin said...

Dell -- This looks witty and lots of fun! Thanks for writing another great review.

Liz's Mom said...

Sounds like a sweet funny movie.

I like how you write about it.

Dell Smith said...

Thanks Liz's mom. It is very funny, although less sweet. Although the lack of sweet in no way diminishes the funny.

Dell Smith said...

Thanks Robin, it's definitely worth seeing, even if you don't know the whole Coogan/Brydon thing beforehand.