What a pleasure it is watch a movie with virtually no plot at all. Don’t get me wrong; director Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, shown at the Tribeca Film Festival this past weekend, is packed with emotion and honesty and the gradual unveiling of the characters’ rich inner lives. In terms of action, however, the film depicts exactly what would happen if you and an old colleague spent a week traveling Northern England on a restaurant tour: almost nothing.
Edited together from a 2010 miniseries of the same name and combined with new footage to make a feature length film, The Trip follows the fictionalized versions of British comedic actors Steve Coogan and Robert Brydon as they explore the lovely frozen landscape of Yorkshire and eat more dishes per meal than is humanly advisable, at cafes where foam plays a significant role in 86% of the meal. Winterbottom paired the two actors after directing them in Tristam Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story, which isn’t to say the two are friends exactly, either in the film or in real life. Brittle, bossy Coogan eyes Brydon’s recent career and personal success with incredulity, while goofy, optimistic Brydon smilingly tolerates his traveling partners’ mood swings and philandering with the hotel employees. As with Coogan and Winterbottom’s previous work together, the line between the real Steve and the character is for the most part imperceptible. Coogan and Brydon don’t have a particularly strong camaraderie for people trapped together for a week in a car. Luckily for us, what they lack in friendship they make up in banter.
It’s a testament to Winterbottom’s foresight that he knew this particular relationship could carry a feature-length film, which it unquestionably does. The vast majority of The Trip is comprised of improvised conversation, heavy on the impersonations of other, more famous British actors. With each riff, Rob and Steve’s relationship is thrown into greater relief. No matter how funny a joke might be, there’s no telling how the two will respond to each other’s humor: with jealousy, with feigned boredom, with genuine amusement. When Coogan delivers a ridiculously insulting eulogy at Brydon’s imagined funeral, Rob laughs, and then asks him hesitantly if he would actually say those things in public. Much of the movie’s excitement comes from the clash of their particular quirks. As a result, the film comes across as a slice of real life, if you spent your life eating deliciously twee foods while in the company of two exceptionally witty Brits. Just as in life, the entire experience is a pleasure, except for those moments where you want to hide in a field just to get one second of respite.
Unlike many improvised comedies, however, The Trip seems to depict the full improvisational experience. It embraces awkward and commonplace moments as fully as it does those that are genuinely funny. For every spot-on Billy Connolly impression, there are twenty seconds of uncomfortable riffing. In some scenes the actors appear to break, then return to the conversation. The tension between them rises, and then fades away with a veer in topic or tone. The film moves seamlessly from hilarious to embarrassing and back again. For example, when Brydon meets Coogan’s parents for the first time, he burns through his best impressions in 45 seconds in an bald effort to impress them. The family smiles supportively, then it dawns on them: this guy isn’t going to stop until he gets a laugh. That statement basically sums up Coogan and Brydon’s existential dilemma as performers to a tee.
There are a few intentional laugh-out loud moments in the movie (“Steve Coogan Is A Cunt, Says Dad,” declares one dream-world newspaper). The rest of the truly hysterical moments are those that naturally cycle back through the conversation. Late in the film I laughed hysterically when Brydon brought back a Bond villain impersonation for the third or fourth time.
Anyone interested in being a performer will enjoy The Trip, though be prepared to ride home on the subway staring at your hands as you question what you’ve been doing with your life. At one point Coogan recalls how a Hollywood type wished out loud that he had “gotten a hold” of Steve at 35. As a third-year 41 year old with an unruly tween, a divorce under his belt and a recently failed relationship with a young American woman, the comment haunts him. The final shots of the film, of Brydon happily returning to his tiny family and Coogan gazing out the window of his penthouse, seem to suggest that two performers can follow their instincts and the gift of luck to success, only to find that their ability to be happy is controlled by an unchangeable internal setting. Seeing as how no one can know the ending to their own stories, Coogan and Brydon’s real lives are much more like a series of meals and flirtations and hilarious conversations than any traditional narrative could express. The Trip is one of the only films I’ve seen that manages to convey just how unknowable the future feels in the present. Until then, all we have is this endless conversation between oneself and one’s friends. Oh, and scallops. A jaw-dropping amount of scallops.