Many of director Michael Winterbottom’s movies blur the line between the fictional and the real; those that do can be divided into two categories: politically charged, human-scaled dramas about the Middle East (The Road to Guantanamo, In This World, A Mighty Heart) and artsy larks with Steve Coogan (24 Hour Party People, Tristram Shandy). Winterbottom’s latest, The Trip, adapted from a six-part BBC series, falls firmly into the second camp: regardless of how much of it is “real,” it’s a conspicuous vanity project for Coogan, highlighting the actor’s discontent with his failed personal relationships and hamstrung Hollywood career.
Friend and colleague Rob Brydon, also playing himself (or a real-ish version thereof), joins Coogan on a weeklong road trip, a tour of the lodgings and haute cuisine of Northern England. The Trip is food pornier than I Am Love‘s prawnography, with course after course paraded out in drooling close-ups, their ingredients exhaustively and exhaustingly enumerated, though Winterbottom subtly undermines their grandiosity with many shots of different cooking staffs hard at work in the kitchens. Coogan is on assignment for the Observer Magazine, and intended to bring his girlfriend along, who instead returned to America to pursue her career as a journalist. Brydon is her unromantic, last-minute replacement. Together, the two are like an English Jerry and George, amiably antipathetic, constantly riffing off of each other in improv sessions. (Many of the funniest moments are during their impromptu impression competitions, whose subjects range from Michael Caine to Woody Allen.) They engage in petty acting contests, test each others’ octave ranges, and worry about their receding gumlines.
At the end, no one has changed or learned a lesson. But soft edges of poignancy undercut the comedy as the film explores Coogan’s romantic troubles, his estranged relationship from his teenage son, and his fears of aging—his loneliness, but also his professional foundering. Coogan and Brydon traverse painterly landscapes and visit the estates of renowned poets, both of which provide a greatness against which we can measure Coogan’s frustrated acting ambitions. (The two also recite quite a bit of memorized poetry.) “It’s 2010,” Rob Brydon says early on. “Everything’s been done before. All you can do is do it again, but better.” The Trip is no groundbreaking buddy comedy on the road; it feels like a demo reel inflated to feature film, a gift to Coogan, and a wish of good luck. It may seem indulgent, but for anyone who’s followed Coogan’s career and grown fond of his disdainful comic style, it feels like a gift well-deserved.
Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip screens tonight at 6 p.m., and on April 23, 26 and 30. More information here.