Monday, June 17, 2024 Jun 17, 2024
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The Trip: The Stomach is The Fastest Way to a Man’s Soul


Director Michael Winterbottom’s latest film, The Trip, didn’t start out as a movie, but rather, a six-episode British television show. The residue of that medium remains on the movie’s surface. The Trip is a comedic take on the world of foodies, casting British funny man Steve Coogan (24 Hour Party People) as an actor asked to be a food writer by a magazine and forced to wander England’s beautiful Lake District, tasting all the finest eats the area has to offer. It is a dream trip that would have many of us salivating, but the first comedic bump comes from the revelation that Steve Coogan’s character Steve is not an obsessive foodie. His girlfriend is, which is the reason Coogan accepted the assignment. But his girlfriend has backed out of the trip at the last minute, and is off in New York. Steve exhausts his phonebook searching for a replacement and finally settles on fellow funnyman Rob (Rob Brydon).

In the television show, Winterbottom supposedly churned out more expansive, ensemble fare that whipped the north of England (Winterbottom’s homeland) into its own kind of onscreen star. Here the focus is squarely on Rob and Steve, and the episodes play out, well, like TV episodes. Each hotel brings another bickering fight, another elaborate meal, and another opportunity for the two leads to toss about jokes and tickle us with their natural chemistry. Steve is more prickly, expansive, sharp, erudite, and sour. He is a frustrated comedic actor who spends much of the trip on the phone with his agent trying to score roles in art films. He has a sense of self, is distracted by his legacy, his art, not to mention his possibly disintegrating relationship with his girlfriend. The only thing that soothes are the many women he seduces as he lily-pad hops from hotel to hotel in the English countryside.

We can quickly see why Steve only reluctantly asked his old acquaintance, Rob, to join him. Rob is a comedian whose life and career stands in counterpoint to nearly everything Steve strives for. Rob has settled for a steady job as a yuckster on a British quiz show. He is happily married, happy to be recognized on the streets for his impressions, and has no illusions of artistic grandeur. Their relationship feels fraternal, built on a sub-surface rivalry between two characters never meant to chase the same things in life. There are laughs, bitterness, and begrudging life advance tossed about over plates of delicately prepared French cuisine.

The Trip feels like it was written for Coogan and Brydon’s particular comedic sensibilities and without their wit-brandishing, there is no way it works. During many of the film’s many meals the two square off over competing impersonations, with Sean Connery and Michael Caine being both comedians’ favorite subjects. They criticize each others’ work, verbally spar, and try to impress the occasional female dinner guest with their talents. It could all disintegrate very quickly in to dull, plodding drudgery, except for the fact that these guys are wickedly funny.

But The Trip is not pure sitcom. Winterbottom serves his humor over a bed of melancholy. Here Coogan emerges as a central figure, caught in an endless existential swirling ‚ an out-of-control grasping for external validation of his own personal and artistic self worth. It is an intriguing snapshot — if not quite a portrait — of a kind of loneliness that smacks of contemporary angst. His is a sympathetic fool, unable to love, disparaging of contentment. It is as if his depression and emotional suffering are the actual indicators of his authenticity or creative resolve. Playing in counterpoint to Brydon, who, staying away from the easy women, spends his time memorizing Wordsworth poems, reciting them during their countryside sojourns, we get two equally sympathetic takes on life. Would you like the fish or the meat?