I haven’t “gotten” Michael Winterbottom yet. I appreciate the skill that went into 24-Hour Party People and the cleverness of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, I even like Steve Coogan…but while I appreciate the talent, I don’t especially like it. It is a personal preference and nothing more, and I, admittedly, have seen only a handful of his films.
His films leave me in a dour mood, one that feels instilled for its own sake. I don’t mind “dark” films when they use their darkness to impart a deeper message, but I’ve yet to see a Winterbottom film with such a message. Winterbottom’s latest film, The Trip, is a prime example of that displeasure.
The Trip finds Coogan and Rob Brydon, two talents and Winterbottom favorites, on a culinary tour of northern England. Coogan’s been commissioned by The Observer to write an article on the local cuisine, and he sees it as good enough an excuse as any for a paying holiday.
The original plan was for Coogan’s girlfriend to accompany him, but she pulls out at the last minute for a trip to America, so Brydon’s brought in as a last-minute replacement. Brydon’s a good-enough spirit, and, despite Coogan’s insistence that they’re more work acquaintances and not friends.
Much of the humor comes from the two riffing off each other. Their conversations indulge in awkward moments, pop-culture references, and impressions—among the highlights being a dynamite Michael Caine. These are engaging and funny at first, but they tend to run on too long and repeat themselves. Likewise, much of the dialogue centers on British pop-culture, and if that’s something you’re ignorant of, many of the jokes will go over your head. But if you recognize the names Michael Winterbottom, Steve Coogan, and Rob Brydon, you should be okay.
And Coogan once again plays the petty, self-aggrandizing exaggeration of himself he played in Tristram Shandy, trying to manage the evident failures of both his personal and professional life, while Brydon is quite the opposite, cheery in his rising stardom. (One of the gags is that barely anyone takes notice of Coogan while even little old ladies know about Brydon’s funny voices.)
Apparently the movie springs from a six-episode BBC series, and, after seeing the movie, it makes a lot of sense. For one, the weeklong trip is divided up into days, which serve as chapter breaks. For another, the film itself goes on about 20 minutes too long.
Of course, the trip itself is just the starting point for a discussion of several themes. You have your obligatory male bonding and the pressures of moderate success, but foremost is the Winterbottom favorite of self-destruction. The Steve Coogan we see in the film seems hell-bent on snapping at every charitable hand. He sleeps around, takes drugs, regrets the disintegration of his current relationship but, from the conversations he has, is clearly the catalyst, and steadfastly refuses Brydon’s attempts to make the best of their “holiday.”
The problem is that Winterbottom and Coogan go too far. The film seems to take its characterization of Coogan seriously and shirks the comedic aspect in the attempt to garner sympathy. The viewer is left wondering whether The Trip is an offbeat comedy or a dramatic look at a troubled man.
There’s a balance, but Winterbottom never quite finds it. As the film goes on, its sense of humor languishes until, by the final shot, it’s been exterminated entirely. There may be a deeper meaning here, but I found it sullen, like a man too long mired in his own sorrows.