The Trip

July 8, 2011
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Does Michael Winterbottom make too many movies? The 49-year-old British director has directed 33 projects since 1989, and has another three in pre or post-production. If he continues at this rate he still won’t catch up with old-time Hollywood directors such as Michael Curtiz, who is responsible for more than 170 titles (the early ones in Hungarian), but he will outstrip almost everybody else.

Making most of his films with a small, independent production company has allowed Winterbottom the freedom to realise a greater percentage of ideas than those directors tied to the Hollywood machine. Peter Weir, for instance, spent seven years tossing around various projects until he finally settled on The Way Back. In that time Winterbottom would have made about ten movies.

Even more astonishing is the diversity of these films. His three most recent features have been A Mighty Heart, about the kidnapping and murder of journalist, Daniel Pearl, in Pakistan; Genova, a low-key, metaphysical, drama set in scenic Italy; and The Killer Inside Me, a brutal, stylish adaptation of a Jim Thompson tale of murder in small town Texas.

Yet it often feels as though there is a small part missing from Winterbottom’s films. The story may be too sketchy, the characters too shallow, the structuring ideas too crudely visible. It is as though he always has one eye on the next project, with no desire to spend time on fine tuning.

Now we have The Trip, a kind of Clayton’s movie. (For those who don’t remember the phrase: the movie you make when you’re not making a movie.) Originally filmed as a six part BBC television series, it features comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on a culinary tour of the Lakes District. Each episode was structured around a meal in a different restaurant, but the real content was the banter between the two men as they traded impersonations and improvised running gags.

The footage has been re-edited for a cinema release and a stab at the American market, but it features such a babble of voices and accents that US audiences will probably require subtitles.

The basic story idea is that Coogan has been asked to write an article about these restaurants for The Observer. His girlfriend, Mischa, has gone back to the Unted States at short notice, prompting him to ask his friend Rob to be “my companion”, that staple ingredient of the restaurant review. As the trip progresses, we realise it has very little to do with food. What we are really watching is a slow-burning midlife crisis, as Coogan confronts the lonely and chaotic nature of his existence.

In a range of scenic locations we find him on the mobile phone to his girlfriend, his ex-wife, his troublesome son, and various agents. He scouts around for casual sex, and trades low-level insults with Brydon, lauding his own comic genius in relation to the other’s mediocrity.

We understand fairly quickly that Brydon is by far the more successful personality: a family man, devoted to wife and child; a popular media personality, less tortured by personal ambition.

Throughout the journey the pair spar with each other, quoting lines from plays and poems; trading impersonations. Brydon is the man of a thousand voices, giving us bursts of Sean Connery, Hugh Grant, Roger Moore, Billy Connolly, Woody Allen, Al Pacino, etc, etc. It becomes wearisome after a while, and we sympathise with Coogan’s irritation. But there are great moments: nothing better than a hotly disputed contest as to who can do the best Michael Caine impersonation. This scene is as much a potential classic as the famous ‘female orgasm’ conversation, which is the only reason people remember When Harry Met Sally.

Steve Coogan has said that the lead character is not purely autobiographical, but the impression is hard to escape. Both Coogan and Brydon play themselves, and the dialogue is almost completely improvised. They have little interest in the food they eat in a succession of pricey restaurants. In response to one dish, Coogan says: “It has the consistency of snot, but it tastes great.”

We observe these restaurants, such as the Michelin-starred L’Enclume, as if each dish were being conjured in a laboratory and placed in front of two men who examine their meals like radioactive isotopes. Every new course is but a momentary interruption in the flow of competitive talk.

The Trip is a road movie, with some of the same middle-aged angst as Sideways, and the offbeat humour of a British sitcom. The typical road movie is a down-market version of the Homeric quest, where the hero returns home from his travels, realising that he has discovered something fundamental about himself. It’s melancholy but not tragic, just as the humour is quirky rather than laugh-out-loud – apart fom one brief, hilarious dream sequence.Be warned: the rambling, scriptless nature of the film will probably irritate as many viewers as it delights. To make the most of The Trip, one has to put all expectations aside and simply go along for the ride.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, July 2, 2011

UK. Rated M, 107 minutes.