Wednesday 3 November 2010

At the LFF (and on the BBC): "The Trip"

Besides attempting to make a film in every genre known to man, along the way aggravating both this viewer (with the pseudo-porn of 9 Songs) and the feminist lobby (with the recent The Killer Inside Me), one of Michael Winterbottom's nobler missions over the past decade has been to keep Steve Coogan on his toes between ego-inflating Hollywood ventures. If the forthcoming Alan Partridge movie turns out to be as good as we surely all hope it's going to be - and thus manages to overturn the time-honoured narrative of televisual excellence going to shit on the big screen - yes, we should heap praise upon Coogan, Armando Iannucci and co., but in some small measure, we'll also have Winterbottom to thank for keeping his semi-regular leading man's timing and instincts sharper than they might have been at this point in his career.

The Trip, like The Road to Guantanamo before it, is one of Winterbottom's more fluid projects, existing as a 109-minute film for the overseas market, and six half-hour episodes going out on Monday nights on the BBC during November and December 2010. Here, the director picks up one of the choicer threads of his 2006 feature A Cock and Bull Story - the improvised interplay between Coogan and cohort Rob Brydon - and lets it run to full feature (or series) length, in the form of a five-day road trip. Coogan (playing himself, or a version thereof) has been commissioned by the Observer to write a piece on the restaurants of the Lake District, allowing him to indulge his tastes for five-star living while notionally following in the footsteps of Coleridge and Wordsworth; his first thought was to invite his latest model girlfriend along, to show her the picturesque North, but she's cancelled on him to do a fashion shoot, and Brydon's ended up tagging along instead.

This Coogan is faithless, demanding and never happy; informed by his agent his career has "momentum", his response is a typically sour "you get momentum when you're going downhill". Brydon, however, is a perfect travelling companion: personable, adaptable, happily married (with child), and availing himself of any opportunity to get out one of his array of celebrity impersonations. It's the latter who provides The Trip's voice of positivity: when Coogan moans that everything of artistic merit has already been done, Brydon concedes the point, but (channeling Tony Wilson, or channeling Coogan channeling Tony Wilson) adds "the trick is to do it better, or differently" - a philosophy the arch postmodernist Winterbottom immediately signs up to by recycling Michael Nyman's score from his own Wonderland, and then playing Joy Division's "Atmosphere" over shots of the sundappled countryside. ("You usually associate it with an urban landscape," Coogan comments on this particular choice of in-car listening.)

Whether on the road, out in the fields, or over hotel dining tables, the two leads' preoccupations remain much the same: women, the state of their teeth, who can do the best Michael Caine impression, their relative celebrity status, nerdy items of trivia only a pair of dyed-in-the-wool blokes would even dream of offering up for discussion. Winterbottom has referred to the project as a meditation on aging, and duly sticks his performers in a graveyard at one point to mark the occasion, but The Trip is looser and larkier than that description allows. (Compare it to the mortal chill evoked in Another Year, and it really does resemble a breezy, rolling sitcom.) It may, in fact, be no more than a meditation on how Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are aging, and you can well imagine Winterbottom's camera revisiting these characters every couple of years for an update; more so than the sallow, mono-dimensional lovers of 9 Songs, these are this director's equivalents of the Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy figures in Before Sunrise/Sunset.

What The Trip does seem to offer, on its director's part, is a genteel concession - off the back of his most controversial film - that he's simply more comfortable presenting a male perspective on the world. The women here - models, hoteliers, photographers; casual fuckbuddies all - drift in and out worse than Coogan's erratic mobile-phone reception, and indeed I think we're supposed to find Coogan's relentless hound-dogging roguishly heroic before it finally gets pathetic and perhaps even tragic. This may be a flaw embedded at the conceptual stage: The Trip is bound up with Romantic (and thus inherently masculine) notions about finding one's self (or versions thereof) in nature - and Marcel Zyskind's painterly cinematography may be the sole reason this project merits any kind of study on the bigger screen.

Whether viewed in cinemas or at home, though, this venture proves a reliable repository of minor pleasures, which are perhaps all we can now expect from this most gadfly of filmmakers. Among them: an impromptu, all-male rendition of Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights"; Coogan's increasingly, hilariously paranoid dream sequences, being a jaded comedian's remix of Coleridge's own visions inspired by this part of the world; the light jus of foodie porn, which is frankly more appetising than anything on display in 9 Songs; the notional recasting of Annie Hall with Les Dawson, a tremendously parochial flight of fancy that has somehow survived into The Trip's international cut; and a final, homeward-bound singalong that seeks to establish "The Winner Takes It All" (above "Knowing Me, Knowing You") as the defining ABBA song in the Coogan repertoire.

The first episode of The Trip can be watched online here; further instalments will screen at 10pm on Monday nights on BBC2. The feature version opens in North America in 2011.


  1. I recently finished the series, and I enjoyed it for a number of reasons (some of which I cannot conceptualize). Being an American, largely ignorant of British television outside of what was introduced in the states during my childhood - that is, Monty Python, Red Dwarf, and anything with Rowan Atkinson - I had to do some legwork to appreciate many of the allusions to British television and film. Having done some reading, I watched through two seasons of Alan Partridge (thankfully your seasons in the UK are conveniently short, ours spanning around 15 episodes) in between episodes of "The Trip", finishing just in time to catch the "AHA!" quip by Brydon in the final episode, the timing of which had me in stitches.

    A friend introduced me to The Office in 2004, and with it an entirely new way of experiencing humor in television; it was new, at least, to the American audience, as television writers seem to beat you over the head with every punchline, and you can see the setup from a mile away. Perhaps this is what placed that subtle British delivery in such striking contrast. "The Trip" engaged me for the same reason - I've developed a genuine fondness for the subtle, the introspective, the self-deprecating, and the slightly cynical. "The Trip" is all of these things, and there are times where the dialogue is so mundane that even the swiftest, most unassuming slight bitten off by Coogan brings that catharsis.

    The series is dreadfully depressing, but I enjoy that aspect as well. Its take on aging and ego leaves neither character unscathed - even the married man, who is set up as the stalwart companion to the audience, has one too many glasses of wine and threatens to undermine his own marital fidelity. The end of the series wraps up in fitting anti-resolution, though it invokes the old trope of juxtaposing Brydon's more modest home and warm family vibe with Coogan's sterile, empty bachelor pad, hinting at the just rewards of self-absorption and his search for an elusive fame.

    I'm now voraciously seeking any recommended British comedies I can get my Yankee hands on.

  2. Hi Brandon,

    I agree with you more or less entirely - and, having just finished watching the final episode myself, would go as far as to say the series comprehensively trumps the truncated film version (reviewed above) hands down for richness of texture and comic-melancholic rhythms. (One intriguing sidebar: the incident in which the intoxicated Brydon tries to seduce the newspaper's editorial assistant is entirely absent from the film version - suggesting, as so much does these days, that TV viewers are now assumed more sophisticated than the average cinemagoer.)

    If it's recommendations you want, it's recommendations you'll get. If you haven't as yet witnessed the birth of the on-screen Coogan/Brydon double-act, you should rent "A Cock and Bull Story" (Winterbottom again) - and another Coogan/Winterbottom collaboration, "24 Hour Party People", a rollicking collage of the Manchester music scene of the late 80s and 90s which stands as one of the great rock movies of all time.

    In terms of their TV work, I'd strongely recommend you seek out Brydon's one-man show "Marion and Geoff", in which he plays a chauffeur going through off-screen marital difficulties - again, subtly sad and comic at the self-same time - and, by way of an underrated Coogan gem, the recent "Saxondale", one of the few instances where the comic/actor/comic actor seemed to display genuine love for the character he was playing - a scruffy, pedantic, but essentially good-natured roadie forced to survive in a post-Led Zep world.

    Of course, you can't go wrong with any of the "Partridge"s - let's just hope the mooted movie spin-off lives up to our heightened anticipation. A-ha!...