‘The Trip’: The discontent of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, made hysterically funny

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Still image from The Trip. ()
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The Tribeca Film Festival, established by Robert De Niro in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center to revitalize the economy of Lower Manhattan, has screened more than 1,200 films from over 80 countries since its first iteration in 2002. The 2011 festival goes from April 21-May 1, and over the next couple of weeks, Sheila will be reviewing as many of the screened films for Capital as she can possibly see in a two-week period. See the schedule of public screenings and purchase tickets here.

Michael Winterbottom is one of those directors who resists easy classification. He's not known for making one type of film, and he leaps from genre to genre, sometimes in the same year. From period pieces like Jude and Tristam Shandy, to films that take on current-day issues (Welcome to Sarajevo, The Road to Guantanamo and A Mighty Heart), to smaller comedies and dramas (Wonderland, 24 Hour Party People) Winterbottom is not content to stay put. He also apparently never sleeps, coming out with a film a year since the mid-90s. In 2010, first we had his The Killer Inside Me, based on Jim Thompson's bleak pulp novel, a stylish moody thriller with a creepy sociopathic performance from Casey Affleck, set in a nowhere town in West Texas.

In the same year, Winterbottom has also given us The Trip, a road movie of sorts, starring British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (who also starred together in Winterbottom's Tristam Shandy). The Trip began as a series for the BBC and the premise was and is simple: Coogan and Brydon play themselves, and Coogan takes a gig as a food critic for the Observer, mainly for the all-expenses paid tour of the restaurants in England's Lake District. Coogan had hoped to take his American girlfriend along, but she breaks up with him right before the trip, so he convinces his good buddy (and professional rival) Rob Brydon (also playing himself) to come along. They pack up the car and off they go.

There's really nothing more to say about what "happens" in the movie, because nothing happens in the movie. There is no real plot, and the point of the "trip" is not the destination but the journey itself. Filmed in a no-nonsense, almost documentary style, The Trip has a casualness to its execution that belies the underlying themes of middle-aged male loneliness, and what friendship provides for a certain kind of man. By that I mean, these are funny men. They make their livings being funny.

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It is no secret that professional comics are often very lonely people, and introverts, actually. Comics turn their coping mechanism of humor into a career, but the core of sadness, often unacknowledged, is always there. The best comics, the ones in the history books, like Richard Pryor or George Carlin, allow us to see that part of themselves. That inner angst is part of their comedy. It's an interesting phenomenon, and The Trip never addresses it outright, but it's there nonetheless. The movie works by stealth. It's nonstop hilarity, interspersed with flashes of sadness or melancholia, and by the end, we are primed for the sucker-punch that comes.

Brydon and Coogan drive through the desolate beauty of the Lake District, and visit restaurants with high-end haute cuisine, presented to their table course by course. The food is gorgeous, putting to rest any stereotype one might have about England being a fish-and-chips kind of nation.

The men do a little sight-seeing. They talk about Coleridge and Wordsworth, who both lived and worked in the area. Coogan tries to interest Brydon in the geological processes that formed the Lake District, how the glaciers moved, and the sediments were left behind. Brydon is not as interested in all of that as Coogan thinks he should be. They argue over who has the better room.

Because they are comedians, the banter (which feels improvised) is often hilarious. An ongoing bit involves who does the better Michael Caine impression. Byrdon (whose Michael Caine is damn good) critiques Coogan's Caine, and tells him (as Michael Caine) why he's got it wrong. Coogan (whose Michael Caine is also damn good) tells Brydon what he's missing in his impression. These duelling Michael Caine impressions go on for the length of the film.

Coogan, still upset over his breakup and trying to get cell phone service in the middle of various bleak fields to call his girlfriend in America, hooks up with hotel staff members on a nightly basis. A parade of anonymous women leave his room every morning. Brydon asks Coogan why he feels the need to "chase women," and Coogan replies, "I don't 'chase' women. You make me sound like Benny Hill."

Each pitstop involves another meal, where they talk and argue and follow trains of thought to their logical (sometimes absurd) conclusions. They discuss ABBA with desperate seriousness. They sing together in the car. They meet up for breakfast. At night, Brydon calls his wife at home and jokingly tries to engage her in "a little phone sex, what do you think?" Meanwhile, in the next room, Coogan sleeps with the chamber maid or the desk clerk.

Brydon is huge in Great Britain (he informs Coogan that one of his character voices "is now an iPhone app, can you believe it?"), and Coogan, while successful, has dreams of big Hollywood success. There's a very funny actual dream sequence, where Ben Stiller appears and leads Coogan through a palatial Hollywood house, saying over his shoulder, "Yeah, the Coen Brothers want to meet you, and Scorsese, too ... Tarantino wants to do a project with you ..." The fantastical list of A-list directors goes on and on.

Submitting to the movie's lazy rhythm is one of its greatest pleasures. Letting go of the need for plot and event reaps great rewards. The spontaneous nature of their dialogue is unmistakable (as well as irresistible), and their affection for one another (hidden underneath constant barbs and jabs) is clear. It's fun to hang out with these guys. But again, The Trip works by stealth. The ending, when the two men return home, Brydon to his wife and baby, Coogan to his gleaming bachelor pad, is suddenly melancholy and poignant, the loneliness and longing that has flitted on the periphery now surging fully into the foreground. While a tone-shift at the last moment in a film is a bold choice, here it is warranted and earned.

The Trip has great reverb.

Read more reviews of Tribeca Film Festival selections by Sheila O'Malley.