The trailers for The Trip make the film out to be a madcap comedy. Truth is, The Trip contains a number of genres, from comedy to foodie to road movie to character drama, and for the most part, they all work.
The Trip follows actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (playing exaggerated versions of themselves) as they travel around the Northern English countryside and visit the best restaurants in the area. The whole trip itself is backwards and ridiculous from the get go: Rob is a last minute replacement for Steve’s food savvy, possibly ex-girlfriend (Margo Stilley), neither Rob or Steve is into fine dining, and Steve is trying to salvage his career in England and America in a part of the country virtually devoid of cellular phone reception. Furthermore, the two men have nothing in common: Coogan is a glum, self-loathing man perpetually unhappy with his professional and personal life, and Brydon is a cheery, light-hearted family man absolutely content with his place in the world.
Naturally, misery and incongruity tends to breed comedy, and The Trip is at its best when it focuses on the two men on their reluctant journey. The conversations between them revolve around pop culture observations and one-upmanship involving impressions; in one scene, both men recite the same set of lines in the style of a Bond villain just to see who does it best. Other times, the two compete over who can do the better Michael Caine (the biggest showdown in the film) or the best Woody Allen.
Much of the dialogue between Coogan and Brydon was improvised, and as it should have been. Their antics involve the same conversations friends have with one another that are innocuous to the outsider, but impossibly important to those from within. It would be very difficult to recreate such natural, yet absurd relations from reading lines off of a page; one would have do it in the moment, and follow them through to their most ridiculous conclusion.
It is important to point out that The Trip is Coogan and Brydon’s second film of this sort; in 2006, the two men starred in A Cock and Bull Story, in which the actors also portrayed themselves trying to make a film adaptation of the British novel, Tristram Shandy, making The Trip something of a tangential sequel. So much of the two lead’s shtick relies on working together without appearing to work together, and the level of insight and chemistry both men have on their act and on each other works beautifully.
The drama in The Trip comes as something as a surprise, and sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t. Sometimes the drama seems superfluous and misplaced, rendering the film a bit longer than it should, and the scenes feel misplaced in the grand scheme of things. In the U.K., The Trip was a six-episode, 180-minute television series that was edited down to an hour and forty minutes for its feature release. No doubt that some of the scenes, namely the ones involving Steve and his soon-to-be ex, had more to offer in its televised format, but in this film version, it doesn’t quite work.
However, there are some scenes that do work, and this is to Coogan’s credit. Steve is a man stuck in a professional and personal rut who struggles with unfulfillment, a broken family, a breaking relationship, and is, in general, lost. The scenes where he and Rob tour the homes of a few famous poets carry a certain weight, as the discussions of the poets’ troubled lives often seem to mimic Steve’s own life. There is also a phone conversation between Steve and his son, and it is one of the few phone call scenes that work; it offers a rare glimpse at Steve’s humanity that is underplayed, but wonderfully sincere and poignant.
While he does play the man of a thousand silly voices, Brydon injects a strength of character into what could have been a mere sidekick’s role. As a man content with who he is professionally, and more concerned with who he is personally, Rob is more than just a comic foil for Steve, he is a figure of reason for the film. What’s more, Brydon plays it with absolute subtlety, and never undermines the comedy of the situation at hand.
Like any road movie, The Trip is many things, most of which come off quite nicely, and for all its unexpected seriousness, you will laugh. Hard.