Tribeca 2011: THE TRIP Review

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
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Would it be unfair to other directors if I were to suggest that Steve Coogan work with nobody other than Michael Winterbottom for the rest of his career? Because, you see, it's not like any other film directors have very particularly made good use of Coogan's immense talent on screen, whereas the Winterbottom / Coogan combo continues to produce absolute gold. See Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story and 24 Hour Party People for ample proof of that. And while we're on the subject of recommended permanent, ongoing relationships, let's just throw co-star Rob Brydon into the mix as well, shall we?

The Winterbottom's latest meeting with Coogan and Brydon, The Trip, appears at the Toronto International Film Festival at all is something of an anomaly because, you see, it's not a film at all. No, shortly after completing hard edged thriller The Killer Inside Me, Winterbottom shot The Trip as a six part television series for the BBC and what is being present here is just those six episodes edited together in sequential order. And while the repetitive, daily structure of the piece will likely play a bit better as TV than it does as film it is still a very, very good thing that The Trip made its way to Toronto because it is as funny, charming, and heartfelt a piece of work as you're likely to see on screen this year.

Shot in a largely improvised documentary style, The Trip stars Steve Coogan as Steve Coogan - not in an ironic sense, but actually as Steve Coogan. The popular comedian and actor has signed on to write a food column for the UK's Observer, a job picked up largely as an excuse to take his girlfriend on an all expenses paid trip through the English northlands, stopping off in a variety of high end hotels and restaurants along the way. The problem is his girlfriend has left and returned to America and so Coogan has had to call in Plan B. But Plan B was also unavailable, apparently, and so he's stuck with Rob Brydon, fellow actor and frequent collaborator, as his traveling companion.

And this, friends, is the movie. That's it. Coogan and Brydon pack up for six days on the road together, eat good food, and riff on each others' company. Presented in a straight, linear style clearly meant to feel like an actual documentary, which the project is really not, we go day by day with our duo hitting the road every morning rambling through the countryside, eating one damn fine meal, and wrapping up with Coogan - a notorious womanizer remarkably unafraid to use his actual private life as source material - either making lonely phone calls to his girlfriend in America or trying to bed one of the locals.

It's a very, very simple formula and one that - in lesser hands - could result in terminal boredom. But here, here it becomes something exceptional. Coogan and Brydon - close friends and collaborators in real life - are simply fantastic with each other and their ongoing relationship with Winterbottom allows for a level of trust and intimacy that keeps this from being a repetitive series of one liners and laugh tracks and instead makes it into a stirringly honest portrait of the friendship between the two men. That both happen to be fantastic improvisational comedians only makes things better.

The comedy tends to fall into two categories. On one side there is continued riffing on Coogan's insecurities and burning desire for US success - themes that also cropped up repeatedly between Coogan and Brydon in Tristram Shandy - while on the other are the fabulous, stream of consciousness impersonation sessions that typically begin with Brydon delivering a fabulous impression of someone or other - he's famous for these, and rightly so - followed by Coogan dismissing Brydon's impressions as being beneath the interest of a serious actor, then criticizing and trying to improve upon Brydon's work - Coogan himself did a lot of impression work in his early career - and then, once both have a voice they're happy with, the two of them going into rambling, word association riffs of whatever absurd matter may happen to pop into mind while in character. And so we have a Sean Connery Bond delivering Abba lyrics and so on and so forth.

The relationship between Brydon and Coogan is like one between a crusty old married couple. The two are obviously close friends and Brydon is clearly on this trip to support Coogan in a difficult time - Brydon himself is leaving his newborn baby at home with his wife to come along, and being away clearly weighs on him - but neither will ever actually say so directly, their obvious affection and respect for each other instead playing out as competition and good hearted criticism. They're both boys who have never really become men, though Brydon is significantly farther along that road than Coogan. As in Tristram Shandy, Winterbottom seems fascinated by the complex and seemingly contradictory nature of Coogan himself - the womanizer who very publicly destroyed his own marriage but who is still a dedicated and caring father - while Coogan, in Winterbottom's care, remains incredibly willing to expose his own weaknesses in the name of presenting something far more true and complex than the basic structure of this would lead you to expect.

Winterbottom remains one of the world's most fascinating and diverse film makers and while The Trip may not have a prayer of matching the box office of Coogan's most recent on screen appearance - The Other Guys - this is a film that is much funnier, much more sincere and of much greater lasting value. As it stands right now all of the highlights of Coogan's film career are with Winterbottom at the helm and that shows no sign of changing.
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