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David Thomson on Films: ‘The Trip’—A New Film from an Underrated Director

Here’s another “movie” from Britain that without a touch of pomp or pretension seeks to ask us, “Well, why in hell do you think you know what a movie is, or has to be?” Since nearly anything could serve and function within the gloriously loose structure of The Trip, I found myself hoping that its two guys might find one of their conversations leading into a lugubrious consideration of what Terrence Malick thought The Tree of Life was really about. They could do rival impersonations of the dinosaurs or Sean Penn.

This dream doesn’t materialize because The Trip opened on BBC television in the autumn of 2010, some while before anyone outside Malick’s charmed circle could have seen The Tree. But another series of The Trip is a lot more sensible and desirable than, say, a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean. In a sequel, the guys could be film critics just as easily as they are now restaurant reviewers. The six-part TV series (coming in at 172 minutes) has been abbreviated into a theatrical movie that runs 107 minutes. I don’t think it’s a loss: any episode of the TV show conveyed the heart of its situation, but the two guys are so engaging it could have gone on all day and half the night. Indeed, The Trip is one of those works that proves the obliging elasticity of film if it involves odd personalities and amusing talk. In addition, it seems to me (and to several other critics) to be the funniest thing on offer this season and a more complicated and compelling insight into grumbling, nattering, needling male friendship than a hundred Hangover films.

The Trip is a boring excursion (boredom is at its heart—and it really is time that American film took note of this rich and very American topic) in which two fellows drive from London to the Lake District. One, Steve Coogan, has been asked by a Sunday newspaper, The Observer, to make a tour of high-class restaurants in the Lakes. It was his plan to take his American girl-friend, but for reasons that emerge she has had enough of him. So he enlists his natural company—his chum, his rival, his nag, his familiar—Rob Brydon. They play themselves and much of their chat is improvised, but fondly recorded and shaped by their director, Michael Winterbottom.

This trio are reunited. In 2005, they made Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story which managed to catch both Sterne’s whimsical tone and his structural disruptions as we saw the movie being made. The scheme came from Winterbottom and his screenwriter, Frank Cottrell Boyce (as well as from an affection for Sterne), but it required energy, voice and deadpan humor from Coogan (who played Tristram, his father, Walter Shandy, and himself) and from Brydon (who played Uncle Toby, as well as himself).

Coogan and Brydon have a full life together as actors (and comics): They are on British television a lot, and they give an enjoyable sense of both getting out of the same bed on the wrong sides. Coogan is vain, neurotic, foolish, a helpless show-off, promiscuous and flighty (I mean the persona, of course, not the man). Brydon is nicer, more relaxed, warmer but a great counter-puncher. There’s a little of Laurel and Hardy, maybe, but it’s simpler and fairer to say they are Coogan and Brydon—so go see them.

The Trip is about the way friends are when they can’t quite understand their own friendship. It’s not gay (glum is closer), but it’s a true marriage in which they talk about the food, the scenery, the women they see, and steadily dig away at each other as if waiting to see how sharp the joke needs to be before blood is drawn. They work an act in which they pretend not to like each other, but anyone can see the necessity of their bitter union. How else can they enter into prolonged impersonation contests? There is a duel over the best Michael Caine voice that is not just a classic of film comedy, but enough to make Caine himself vanish. There really is no need for him now.

Anyone watching The Trip might easily conclude that Coogan and Brydon made the movie themselves, without anyone’s help. So it’s important to say that Michael Winterbottom is one of the most talented directors working anywhere today—and certainly the most versatile.

Let me name some of his works: in 1996, Jude, an austere version of the Hardy novel, starring Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet in 1997, the challenging Welcome to Sarajevo, with Stephen Dillane and Woody Harrelson; in 2000, a spectacular snowscape Western, The Claim—adapted from Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge; in 2002, the ground-breaking 24 Hour Party People—written by Boyce—and with Coogan spectacular as a TV commentator on the punk scene in Manchester in the ’70s; in 2003, Code 46, an imperfect thriller set in Shanghai, with Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton; in 2004, 9 Songs, which is simply the most candid, beautiful and non-porn film about sex made in this century; in 2007, A Mighty Heart, the Daniel Pearl story, with Angelina Jolie as the wife and widow; in 2010, The Killer Inside Me, a violent and deservedly controversial version of the Jim Thompson novel. And now The Trip.

I don’t mean to say that every Winterbottom film is flawless—and I doubt he would argue. But the ease and daring with which he takes on such varied places, themes and moods is uncanny. So it’s no wonder to hear that he plans a version of Hardy’s Tess, transposed to India. As it is, The Trip is an endearing comedy; Tristram Shandy is the impossible—a true movie from Sterne; The Claim is prodigious; Welcome to Sarajevo is so tense and moving it exhausts the viewer; and 9 Songs and 24 Hour Party People are masterpieces. And yet, I suspect that a lot of American filmgoers will still have some difficulty placing the name of Michael Winterbottom. Start with The Trip and work backwards, and take nothing for granted.