Directed by: Michael Winterbottom
Written by: N/A
Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan and Margo Stilley
The Trip blends the line of fiction and reality so seamlessly that by the end you’re left uncertain of what you’ve seen. As it unfolds it is clear that you’re watching a movie, but there’s something different about it. It could be that there was no actual shooting script and that the actors are playing themselves (in a Curb Your Enthusiasm kind of way), but it’s not just that.
What Michael Winterbottom’s film does so brilliantly is comment on reality with a very close fictional version. Its comedy is born out of deep personal truth. This undertaking requires tremendous efforts from the two lead performers, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Steve is asked by The Observer to travel around the UK and try the finest restaurants. His semi-girlfriend backs out, so he asks Rob, who is happily married.
Rob is both his best friend and the source of much agitation, though Steve is the same to him. The Trip is a collection of conversations- in the car, in restaurants, on the phone- mostly between the two main characters. It’s structured much like Sideways, with each day flashing on the screen and bringing new restaurants instead of wineries.
This movie doesn’t have all the comforts of fiction afforded Alexander Payne’s wine comedy, though. Steve is using this wine excursion as an escape. He’s uncertain about whether he wants to “sell out” and start taking big, awful movies or work exclusively with auteurs. In one of his several weirdly realistic dream sequences, Ben Stiller tells lists off countless directors that want to work for him. The sad reality is an agent offering him a lame drama series.
You can’t help but feel the sting of truth to this, and the conversations between Rob and Steve are even more brutal. They ruthlessly attack and critique each other’s career and life choices. It’s easier to read it as hilariously degrading fiction, but there is no screenplay, so this must be coming from somewhere.
Winterbottom structures most of the movie as a series of dinner conversations. These lengthy bits develop the character relationship without any meaningless getting-to-know-you chit chat. Rob does too many celebrity impressions, often retreating into them when he gets bored or uncomfortable. The first dinner scenewith their competing Michael Caine impressions is one of the funniest movie moments in recent memory.
Rob’s impressions and Steve’s dark sarcasm ultimately become their armor against each other. That this purpose emerged organically, and that the actors face each other so ruthlessly, is amazing. They let the other know when they aren’t being funny, which is the harshest critique a comic actor can endure. Most of the story is them lambasting each other.
The Trip is not about its story, though, which mostly exists to serve the characters and their comedy. The same could also be said of the movie’s unadorned visual style, which effortlessly captures the performances and some of the gorgeous scenery. Some of the best vistas are on dinner plates, though. Winterbottom intercuts scenes of food being prepared with the conversations. As the two move from course-to-course they it offers an effortless sense of time, and the characters’ growing annoyance seems about to explode by each meals’ end.
For every almost every moment of annoyance these two share, though, they also share a laugh. They build off each other’s comedy like only people who have known each other a long time could. Like many longtime friendships, Steve and Rob laugh both with and at each other. Unlike many, they duet to “The Winner Takes it All.”
Despite the surprising poignance of that musical number and several of the other scenes, there is no climax in The Trip, however much audiences may expect one. It takes roughly the same tone throughout, and there are no major relationship shifts. What makes it an important comedy is not its story arc. Making this film was a bold act of finding comedy in the harshest of self-truths. None of the actual gags are cheap, and if they are they are called out or given a dry look. The movie criticizes itself so we don’t have to.